Study predicts growth in oil and gas field numbers

Image caption, The North Sea remains the hub of the UK's oil and gas sector

The next three decades could see 12 new oil and gas fields developed in the average year, according to a new study.

It suggests a conservative estimate of the oil price at $70 per barrel over coming decades could unlock the development of 365 new fields.

A more optimistic oil price of $90 - it is currently just above that price - would mean more than 500 fields.

The study of UK waters was carried out at Aberdeen University by Professor Alex Kemp and Linda Stephen.

They believe that roughly a third of the oil and gas potential under UK waters still remains to be extracted.

Prof Kemp said the next phase would depend on developing much smaller fields than the large finds from the 1970s and 1980s.

Typically, they could have 20 million barrels of oil, or its gas equivalent (boe), whereas the major fields had as many as 500 million boe.

That means they are further from the infrastructure of platforms, ports and pipelines, and more costly.

So, the next phase of North Sea and Atlantic development will respond to oil prices being higher and to a tax regime that encourages small field development.

The three scenarios set out in the study of Long-Term Prospects for Activity in the UK Continental Shelf start with an assumption of;

  • $50 per barrel and 30 pence per therm for gas - That would mean poor prospects for the British offshore sector. The report says: "Investment falls off dramatically and the production decline rate is very steep. Over the period to 2035, only 137 new fields are developed." Only 13 billion barrels would be recovered.
  • $70 per barrel and 50 per therm for gas - The economic model suggests 20 billion barrels or equivalent, with investment holding up until 2017, and then falling away steadily. The estimate of 365 new fields is in addition to developments in existing fields, which could increase production.
  • $90 per barrel and 70 pence per therm - Investment would rise substantially and remain high until about 2025, with as many as 523 fields being developed. By 2041, as much as 25.5 billion barrels could be recovered.

Prof Kemp said that could include development of "heavy oil" deposits in the east of Shetland basin.

That level of development would require "a very high and persistent pace of new field developments", of more than 17 new fields per year over the next 25 years, which would be "a major challenge for the oil and gas supply chain".

The report warned: "The high price case should be regarded as very optimistic and the probability of its attainment is relatively low."

'Lot of work'

The central forecast is just below that of the UK government, and the high price estimate is substantially lower.

Prof Kemp told BBC Radio Scotland: "The ultimate potential is still very substantial. The costs are relatively high, but at today's prices, they're certainly making the projects viable and will generate a lot of work for the oil and gas cluster."

Although small fields are more expensive to develop, he said even those of 10 million barrels could be viable.

He added: "The number of these could be very large, and collectively they could make a big difference to the future of the whole province."

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