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Andreas de Vries & Aarn Wennekers

Andreas de Vries & Aarn Wennekers

Andreas de Vries is a Strategy Consultant in the Oil & Gas industry, supporting companies to not only develop strategies for success but also execute…

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Is This The Best Operating Model For Big Oil?

Is This The Best Operating Model For Big Oil?

Many of the successful companies of the 21st century had two things in common. Firstly, they were visionary. They accurately understood, early on, what the future of their industry would look like, what big business opportunities for success were hidden in that future, and what kind of company they would need to become to capture those opportunities ahead of the competition.

Secondly, they were driven. They relentlessly pursued becoming the “company of the future” in their industry, innovating in areas such as technology, management practices and corporate culture.

This description will lead most people to think of tech-companies like Apple, Google and Facebook. However, the supermajors of the oil industry deserve to be included in the list.

During the 1990s the supermajors realized that a growing global demand for crude oil would eventually lead to the world running out of “easy-to-find-and-develop” crude oil. And thus, that the future of their industry would be about “tough oil”, crude oil in remote locations, difficult to access and hard to develop, such as the (ultra)deep-water regions of the Gulf of Mexico and West Africa, and the Canadian tar sands.

Consequently, they worked hard to develop the scale and capabilities necessary for meeting the unique engineering, project management and financing challenges such development projects would require. They merged or bought up smaller competitors. And they became hierarchical, process and procedure oriented, focused on detailed planning and disciplined execution, in order to excel at the management of complex, multi-billion dollar and multi-year projects in the harshest of terrains. Related: The Race Between U.S. And Australian LNG Just Started

For oil investors the question is whether this operating model will remain the recipe for success. This will depend on a number of factors.

Crude oil demand growth

According to the IEA, at present, crude oil demand is around 95 million barrels per day. By 2040 demand is forecasted to grow to 104 million barrels per day, an increase of 9 million barrels per day. The amount of new oil that will need to be found and developed between now and 2040 is much greater than this, however, as production from existing fields declines over time.

Again according to the IEA, the longer term average for the natural decline rate is 6.2 percent per annum, or some 6 million barrels per day. Continued investment in enhanced oil recovery techniques can reduce the decline to 3 to 4 million barrels per day, but this still means the oil industry will need to find at least 4 million barrels per day of new production per day, every year, until 2040.

Sources of supply growth

The IEA believes crude oil production from conventional fields peaked (sometime around 2006). Consequently, future new production will need to come from unconventional sources. This no longer implies just (ultra)deepwater and tar sands, however. Innovations in (horizontal) drilling and hydraulic fracturing have made development of tight oil reservoirs an option as well. Related: This Might Be A Multi-Billion Opportunity For Oilfield Services

According to WoodMackenzie, amongst the different unconventional options, tight oil reservoirs can be the most cost-effective. As tight oil is also the area where most innovation to reduce operating costs is taking place (production has already been reduced dramatically over the past year), it is well under way to becoming the preferable unconventional resource globally.

For this reason investment in deepwater development has been cut hardest in response to the fall of the oil price, and the supermajors ConocoPhillips and Chevron announced that they now prefer opportunities in tight oil over (ultra)deepwater.

Tight oil potential

Today, tight oil production is a little over 4 million barrels per day, essentially all of it in the U.S. Because of the abundance of tight oil reservoirs globally, production has the potential to increase to 20 million barrels per day by 2035.

Tight oil production techniques have also been proven effective as quaternary recovery technique for conventional fields. One estimate holds that if adopted globally these techniques could reduce the natural decline in conventional oil production by a further 20 million barrels per day by 2035.

The winning operating model in the future

All this means that the ability to apply tight oil production techniques effectively and efficiently around the globe will become critical for success in the crude oil industry. This has important implications for the ideal operating model. Related: $32 Billion Loss Forces Pemex To Downgrade Offshore Ambitions


While the supermajor operating model has proven successful in the area of development, it has put them at a disadvantage when it comes to other areas such as exploration. Tight oil development and production is another area where the supermajor operating model is sub-optimal, as indicated by ExxonMobil’s surprise decision to not incorporate the shale producer XTO into its hierarchy, policies and procedures when it acquired the company in 2009, but rather allow it to operate essentially on a standalone basis. (Which is the complete opposite of what happened when Exxon acquired Mobil back in 1999…).

Essentially, ExxonMobil realized that its operating model cannot compete in the world of tight oil. The operating model of the successful tight oil producers in the U.S. is about being nimble, agile and quick to respond. Their operations are based around teams, where the different players take on different roles on an as-needed basis, instead of a hierarchy with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. And the objective of these teams is not to diligently execute a detailed plan according to policies and procedures, but to deliver the required results however they may deem fit, leaving substantial room for continuous, controlled experimentation.

That said, it is unlikely that all the future growth in crude oil demand will be met by tight oil opportunities. Undoubtedly, new sweet spots will continue to be found in other areas of the “tough oil world” as well.

Consequently, the future winners in the oil industry will most likely be the companies that have the ability to excel in both kinds of operations, i.e. the tight oil operations where success is dependent on fast improvisation and innovation, as well as the “tough oil” operations where success depends on detailed planning and discipline.

By Andreas de Vries and Aarn Wennekers for Oilprice.com

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  • James Hilden-Minton on March 03 2016 said:
    This strategic vision is deeply flawed. If the fleet of EVs and other plug-in vehicles grows more than 23% annually, then oil demand in 2040 will be less than 95 mbpd, having peaked in 2030 at under 100 mbpd. More realistically EVs and plug-ins grow 50% annually, whence oil demand peaks in 2022 (7 to 9 million new EVs and plug-ins) and falls more than 1 mbpd each year starting 2025 (25+ million new EVs and plug-ins annually). Slower uptake would lead to a later peak, but even 35% growth rate has peak demand by 2025.

    So 6 to 10 years from now oil demand will be in decline. The industry will struggle to avoid a rolling glut. The natural decline rate will be the only way to balance supply and demand. Only producers that can tolerate extended glut prices will be profitable. As the wells age the natural decline rate shrinks and risks being eclipsed by the decline rate in demand. At which point, there is no natural rebalancing. Expertise in tight oil won't count for much, not as much as owning conventional wells with the lowest cost to lift oil.

    Any strategy consultant worth their pay will tell you how to survive after oil demand has peaked. It's not a question of if, but when. EVs and plug-ins are now at 1.3 million and growing 60% annually, even with super low gas prices. When annual sales of EVs and plug-ins hits about 7 to 9 million, that's the peak of oil demand. 25 million EVs and plug-ins displaces about 1 mbpd of oil demand. Do your own math, and stop believing in fairytales told by the IEA and industry consultants.
  • Andreas de Vries on March 04 2016 said:
    James, many thanks for you comment. I don't necessarily disagree with your view on the long term outlook for O&G, the impact of EVs, Renewables, etc. However, it's just not the topic if this article.

    The focus of this article was: whatever oil demand will remain exactly (more than today, less or equal), where will it be supplied from and what kind if company will excel at supplying it?

    And oil demand will remain, no matter how optimistic one is regarding the Energy Revolution underway. (I am actually very optimistic, just see here: http://www.europeanenergyreview.eu/thinking-the-unthinkable-strategy-options-for-an-age-of-disruption-in-the-energy-industry/)

    Just look at the history of coal. Coal demand did not disappear when the internal combustion engine made oil king. I foresee a similar transition from oil to Renewables. New investment in the energy infrastructure will become more and more skewed towards Renewables, such that oil demand will go down over time until it eventually disappears. But this point is at least a few decades away, and until then the question remains: which oil company will be the best oil company?

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