As oil and gas companies desert the North Sea amid rising costs and plummeting profits, INEOS is moving in. Here INEOS Chairman Jim Ratcliffe explains why
INEOS has found a new platform for doing business.
This time, though, it is offshore – in the depths of the North Sea. So far it has invested several hundred million dollars in acquiring gas fields from the DEA Group – and it has set up a new subsidiary to hunt for even more opportunities.
“It is taking us in a new direction but only time will tell whether it becomes as transformational as the decision to buy INNOVENE from BP in 2005 did,” said Chairman Jim Ratcliffe.
Oil and gas companies are frantically selling up amid rising costs and plummeting profits. Three years ago oil was selling at $110 a barrel; today it is below $40. And it is forecast to sink even lower.
The problems in the North Sea, Jim believes, are twofold.
The rigs are not operating as efficiently as they could and the costs are too high.
“We tend to operate at 98%. Our machines always run and they are always producing products,” he said. “But if you look at the North Sea we are seeing examples of 60 to 65%. It is just something that we would not accept in chemicals.”
Those inefficiencies are made worse by rising costs.
“The UK has not been as rigorous with its costs so things tend to be more expensive in the North Sea than in the Gulf of Mexico where it is a highly competitive environment,” he said. “And it’s not just a little bit more expensive. It’s a lot more expensive whereas that great competition you find in the US has driven costs down.”
INEOS has yet to fully understand why the rigs in the North Sea do not always operate, but Jim is confident that INEOS is the company to increase production and improve efficiency.
“We are yet to find out whether we can make an impact there,” he said. “But we do have a proven track record in chemicals. And these are basically chemical facilities. It is in a difficult environment because it’s sitting there in the North Sea but it is still pumps, pipes, vessels and filters and it deals with liquids and gases, which are our bread and butter.”
Over the past 15 years INEOS has grown through a series of successful acquisitions.
“When we compare ourselves today with how each asset was run on the day we acquired it, it is run more efficiently, run more safely and it is run cost effectively,” he said. “So in our mind we are thinking ‘why oughtn’t we be able to do that in the oil and gas arena?”
INEOS began looking out to sea for opportunities about 12 months ago.
“Obviously the collapse in the oil price helped to galvanise our enthusiasm but we have been thinking about it before that because we have quite a lot of tentacles that go upstream in one way or another,” said Jim.
INEOS’ decision to then buy has been welcomed by the UK Government.
“What the UK Government recognises – and we recognise – is that if you are inefficient and expensive, then you lock hydrocarbons in the ground,” said Jim. “Because as soon as a platform becomes break even you have to shut it down, irrespective of what hydrocarbons are left in the ground. If you can run that platform more efficiently and more cost effectively, then you can run it for longer, so you are able to extract more hydrocarbons.”
He said the UK Government was desperate to maximise economic recovery.
“Maybe INEOS, with a slightly different approach, can produce more hydrocarbons for the UK Government,” he said.
Jim has not ruled out investing further in North Sea assets but cannot say how much INEOS is willing to spend.
“We are not going to spend beyond our means,” he said. “But when you are in the world of making acquisitions it is impossible to predict where you will finish up.”
Meanwhile, its biggest challenge will be unearthing new hydrocarbons to continually feed the pipeline.
“Unless you are finding new stuff then you ultimately have a business that will decline to nothing,” he said. “We have a phenol plant that today is producing 500,000 tons and will still be producing 500,000 tons in 20 years. But oil and gas is always in decline.”
To help grow the business, INEOS will be relying on a team of geologists, geophysicists and sub-surface experts, who are now working for INEOS Breagh at its offices in London.
“My impression of the team is very good,” said Geir Tuft, newly-appointed CEO of INEOS Breagh. “And it is one of the reasons why this was such an attractive acquisition.”