Tougher Times in Deepwater Nigeria - Africa’s premier report on the oil, gas and energy landscape.

Tougher Times in Deepwater Nigeria

 By Stewart Williams and Alison Dines, Wood Macenzie

THE GENERAL PERCEPTION ACROSS West Africa’s oil industry is that the high cost inflation seen over the last few years is slowing, particularly with respect to rig rates. Absolute costs, however, are still increasing and 2008/9 will see deepwater drilling rates surpass the $500,000 per day mark for the first time. The specific rig in question is the West Capelle, a new-build driliship, which is due to begin drilling for TOTAL in Nigeria in the third quarter of 2008. Its sister ship, the West Polaris, is also due to start operations in the Gulf of Mexico. After completing its programme with ExxonMobil, the West Polaris will move to West Africa to drill exploration wells in the Nigeria, Sao Tome et Principe (NSTP) JDZ, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

With exploration in the region set to increase again and prospects being located in ever- increasing water depths, Wood Mackenzie has examined the effect of cost escalation in the deepwater Niger Delta. While the US Gulf of Mexico, with its very attractive fiscal terms, can support such day rates and subsequent development costs, West Africa has tougher fiscal terms and Nigeria is an increasingly expensive development area. This insight examines the reserves threshold for commercial oil development in Nigeria and the Nigeria-Sao Tome and Principe JDZ under the existing range of fiscal terms in this deepwater region using typical development cost scenarios.


We have created four model fields containing between 100 and 600 million barrels to analyse commercial reserves thresholds in the deepwater Niger Delta. Cost estimates for the model fields are based on our knowledge of current exploration costs and future development cost expectations of the major oil companies.  The table shows the range of capex for the individual model fields.

High day rates for drilling have accompanied increases in costs for facilities and subsea equipment too. In fact, it is subsea that is the strongest growth area in terms of costs. At the start of the decade, unit capital costs for West African deepwater projects sanctioned for development were around $4 per barrel (nominal). For projects awaiting sanction today, these costs have tripled to at least $12 per barrel, but in many cases more than this.

We assume that these model fields are in water depths greater than 1,000 metres -water depth affects royalty rates -and also has a bearing on exploration and development

costs. We have used Wood Mackenzie’s latest price assumption that assumes a flat long-term real oil price of $50 per barrel (2008 terms).

We have modeled full-cycle returns. The model fields have a 2008 discovery date and first produce in 2015, following first development expenditure in 2011. Although 2015 may seem pessimistic, seven-to eight-year lead times are typical of Nigerian deepwater projects. Satellite developments have been performed much more quickly than this, but our scenarios assume a standalone new field development. All cases assume subsea wells tied back to a new-build floating, production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel.

Results and Discussion

The following chart shows the range of full cycle IRRs under four PSC systems that currently apply in deepwater Nigeria and the NSTP JDZ.

The chart demonstrates the evolution and general toughening of fiscal terms in Nigeria from the first deepwater round in 1993, when lenient terms were offered to encourage high risk drilling, to the tougher terms in the latest bid rounds, which have also been accompanied by high bonuses.

Under the latest Nigerian fiscal terms and cost estimates, around 400 million barrels has to be discovered to achieve a 15% full-cycle return. Discoveries over the last five years, however, have been getting smaller, typically less than 300 million barrels. Most major operators agree that the largest fields have already been found and that it will be difficult to develop new discoveries, even in a high oil price environment. In the early 2000s, the reserve thresholds were much lower, mainly because costs were substantially below the levels seen today.

We have not included signature bonuses in this chart but with a bonus of $50 million (the minimum set for the 2005, 2006 and 2007 bid round deepwater blocks) a 15% will be difficult to achieve, even with a 600 million-barrel discovery.

Why are costs particularly high in Nigeria?

Nigerian projects do attract a risk premium but it is difficult to put a figure on this — the contracts here are more expensive for a number of reasons. Security concerns in Nigeria mean that oil companies have to increase pay to encourage both their own staff and contractors to work there. A history of contract award delays, project design changes and significant re-tendering for contracts also add a premium when contractors are bidding for work in the country.

Another key issue facing operators is the local content requirement. Although Nigeria has been producing oil for over 50 years, it is only in the last few years that local participation has been pushed by the government. The haste in which this has been introduced means that there has been little time for Nigeria to build capacity in the local service and construction sectors that is required if all new deepwater projects are to meet the 70% built-in-country requirements. While the regulation is still not passed into law yet, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation’s (NNPC) Nigerian Content Division is trying to enforce it and this is becoming a barrier to project sanction.

Further costs are incurred in Nigeria through the addition of indirect taxes, which include VAT, import and custom duties, the Niger Delta Development Commission levy and education tax.

Company Outlook

The high cost issue is impacting the corporate view of the region. Already in 2007, we have seen several mid-sized to large lOCs either pull out or farm down their Niger Delta deepwater positions. Devon Energy and Pioneer have left the region completely, Chevron is farming down its share of the Nsiko deepwater discovery and ExxonMobil sold its share of the NSTP JDZ Block 1 (Obo discovery) to Addax in September 2007. Press reports suggest that Occidental, who only returned to Nigeria in 2005, has sold its deepwater position, which includes a stake in the Uge oil discovery.

Although many players are diluting their deepwater positions, others are still building theirs despite the high cost environment. Addax, a very successful Nigerian-shelf player, now has a significant deepwater portfolio in Nigeria and the JDZ. The company’s acreage in Nigeria, OPL 291, is one of the more prospective blocks and has the potential for a large discovery. In the NSTP JDZ, Addax now has an interest in four adjacent blocks, which could lead to cluster developments. This would probably lower each field’s individual reserves threshold required for commerciality. This is not the case with other, smaller Nigerian finds which are generally far apart from each other. BG too is developing a deepwater position and acquired a stake in OPL 323 in August 2007. This was, by far, the most sought-after block in the 2005 round due to its perceived prospectivity.


With commercial reserves thresholds increasing and discovery sizes falling, we expect to see a general slowdown in Nigerian deepwater development. Although the terms have become tougher (through a combination of legislation changes and competitive bidding), it is increasing development costs that are driving the increase in reserves needed for commerciality. Even existing fields with good terms and large volumes, such as Usan, Bosi and Bonga SW, have seen development schedules slip due to rising costs.

Satellite developments will become more attractive, as will infill drilling on the existing large developments that have attractive fiscal terms. However, if deepwater momentum is to continue in the region, then new development concepts have to be considered and NNPC may be able to help by considering some flexibility on the local content directives.

For new discoveries, reducing the time between discovery and first oil would improve the economics. Short lead times have been difficult to achieve for a number of reasons. OPEC constraints exist in Nigeria and the government has staggered deepwater development approvals to balance supply with the output from higher tax areas on the onshore and shelf. This problem should not be a concern in the Nigeria-Sao Tome Principe JDZ as production from this area is understood to be outside of Nigeria’s OPEC quota. The recently announced NNPC restructuring, however, does not bode well for the short-to mid-term as it may be difficult to get NNPC’s approval for project sanction.


1 comment

  1. Danni says:

    The BP oil spill example silpmy depicts a problem that gets worse, which doesn’t quite fit with out of the frying pan and into the fire idiom.A more fitting example would be one in which a person resolves or escapes one problem, only to encounter an even bigger problem. For example: I escaped from the armed robber only to be run over by his getaway van! or I was in an very important meeting with my boss and needed to sneeze, but when I held in my sneeze, I let out a fart! Out of the frying pan and into the fire!

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