The last three years has been the worst stretch of time in seventy years for new conventional oil discoveries.
A new report from IHS Markit finds that conventional oil discoveries plunged to a seven-decade low and “a significant rebound is not expected.” Conventional exploration – as opposed to unconventional development, including shale – had already been trending down following the 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath, which overlapped with the rise of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in several U.S. shale basins.
But the collapse of oil prices in 2014 really knocked conventional exploration – and thus, discoveries – on its back.
After OPEC refrained from cutting production in the face of a swelling supply surplus in late 2014, prices fell sharply…and continued to fall for much of the next year and a half. WTI bottomed out in early 2016 below $30 per barrel, before a pullback in drilling and production cuts by OPEC+ led to a more durable price rebound beginning in 2017.
But the multi-year downturn hit conventional exploration in multiple ways. Not only were companies slashing spending and cancelling riskier ventures, but the oil majors and investors began to view short-cycle shale drilling as inherently less risky. That was because drilling was quick – companies were able to turn projects around in a matter of weeks or months, not the years that large-scale conventional projects took, particularly those offshore in deepwater. Capital flowed en masse from conventional to unconventional development.
Predictably, that led to a steep rise in U.S. shale output, while simultaneously leading to a sharp contraction in conventional discoveries. “One of the main drivers here is the shift of investment by US independents from international exploration to shale opportunities in the United States—shorter cycle-time projects—with greater flexibility to respond to changing market conditions,” Keith King, senior advisor at IHS Markit and author of the report, said in a statement.
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