The right technology and tolerance for risk could make West Africa the next “North Sea,” possibly offsetting the balance of the world’s production hub.
During the early 1970s, Saudi Arabia cut production as a reminder that it held the cards to the world’s petroleum resources. What the swing country did not count on was the slew of development and production that would subsequently take place in the North Sea. As a result, a new oil supply was born far away from the Middle East.
Fast forward to today: With oil saturating the market again, Saudi Arabia has kept its spigots on this time to try and prove once again its place on top of the hydrocarbon pyramid. Despite its effort to slow production – primarily from shale in the United States – there is still room for surprise in the oil marketplace.
The small offshore oilfields of West Africa, if exploited properly, could become the next big economical play even as oil prices hover around $60 a barrel, said Keith Millheim, a director at Atlantis Offshore, an offshore technology company focused on well testing, production and drilling, to Rigzone. And, all it takes is one adventurous company to get the ball rolling.
Innovation in the North Sea
Entrepreneurs such as the U.S.-owned Hamilton Brothers learned how to make small fields in the North Sea economical in the mid-1970s, specifically the Argyle Field off the coast of Scotland that brought Great Britain its first oil. The company’s game-changing technology was the first Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) vessel deployed for oil production. It changed the offshore industry forever.
“If you have the money and you can find the technology to make it work, things begin to snowball and other companies come in, just as Hamilton Brothers essentially launched the industry in the North Sea. Entrepreneurs created the small companies that grew the North Sea,” said Millheim, who will be speaking at the 2015 Africa – Small & Marginal Oil Fields Development Conference in London this August.
Small and midsized companies came into the North Sea with a new set of tools, such as FPSOs, to make small fields commercially viable. Their key ingredients were their willingness to take risks, innovative technology and investors willing to back their ideas, Millheim said.
Countries including Norway and the United Kingdom opened their doors to major operators and required them to invest in the countries’ internal research entities and to train their people – thus creating a path to a self-sustaining industry.
Making West Africa Economical
West Africa, particularly its small offshore oilfields, could be the next “North Sea scenario” if played correctly, Millheim said.
“From the typical types of reservoirs encountered offshore to their size and how prolific they are, it’s really a dream,” he said. “There is possibly more oil in the small fields in West Africa than in the reserves in the big fields. How do we change our thinking to make them work?”
Many fields are capable of producing 8,000 to 20,000 barrels of oil a day, Millheim said.
“If you can do it economically, it’s a company maker,” he said.
Unlike the North Sea, which comes with environmental challenges of rough weather and sea ice, the coast of West Africa is a more ideal place to work – more ideal than the Gulf of Mexico, which battles hurricanes and other destructive currents, Millheim said.
Furthermore, the continent is welcoming of international investors, as the majority of its countries have done little to invest in the technology needed to extract their own hydrocarbons.
Over the years, major oil companies have exploited the large oilfields of West Africa as they saw fit. The host countries never required that investments be made in internal technology centers or in research and development activities, Millheim said.
“Nigeria has some of the largest resources and a large population, but they have never really invested in the technology that is driving 80 percent or more of their economy,” he explained. “That’s horrific.”
As a result, West Africa remains ripe for investors who are willing to exploit smaller fields.
“Who will rally? Who will be the leader? The resources are there. Who’s going to pursue them and how long will it take? Those are the questions,” Millheim said.
Dynamite Comes In Small Packages
Because the threshold for many major operators is roughly 200 to 300 million barrels of recoverable oil, many, including Royal Dutch Shell plc and Chevron Corp., have abandoned many oilfields considered small or marginal in Africa in search of larger ones, said Sunny Oputa, CEO of Energy & Corporate Africa, to Rigzone.
“They were not worth the economic investment to Shell or Chevron but you know what they say: ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison,’” Oputa said. “These small fields are good for small, independent and indigenous companies. Some wells could produce for 10 to 15 years. They will make money.”
Investors intrigued by Africa’s small, offshore fields are often wary of two things: the cost and availability of innovative technology that can make exploiting small fields commercial, and the fact that many small fields are located in deep water, Millheim explained.
However, unconventional types of technology can be successfully applied to developing small, conventional deepwater oilfields.
“There are service companies and providers that can do it all,” Millheim said.
Deepwater locations shouldn’t be feared either, especially when some African countries have reputations for insurgency and militancy.
“Deepwater fields are far away enough to avoid problems of groups seizing facilities,” he added.
“Whether they are indigenous companies or small companies that feel strong enough to play in West Africa, that’s where we will get our major activity from,” Millheim said.
Needed: Technical Innovation
To make a small play commercial in West Africa, the key will be using existing technology in unconventional ways. Just as horizontal drilling had been used for decades before its combination with hydraulic fracturing made it a powerhouse technology, the same type of application must take place in Africa for lucrative discoveries to be brought on production, Millheim said.
One way to help pave the road to a boom, so to speak, is to lower the cost of operations and infrastructure, Oputa said. An as example, he suggested riser technology that is connected directly to small production vessels called Floating Production Units (FPU) rather than relying on costly FPSO vessels.
For reservoirs with geological challenges, hiring an adept reservoir engineer and implementing an effective reservoir management plan can be a good solution, Oputa said.
“Innovation, innovation, innovation,” he added. “The oil industry will tell you that we are innovative, but that’s not necessarily so for the majors. New technology is often challenged. But at the end of the day it’s all about the profits. And there are profits to be made.”
Just as entrepreneurs launched the discoveries in the North Sea as well as the shale boom in the United States, they also are likely to open the door for developing West Africa’s small fields, Millheim said.
In terms of production threats, Saudi Arabia is more concerned about the United States.
“I don’t think Saudi Arabia considers Africa anything to worry about,” Millheim said.
However, it only takes one company thinking outside the box to change that.