It’s exciting times at INEOS – both onshore and offshore – as INCH discovered during a conversation with Geir Tuft, CEO of the company’s new oil and gas business INEOS Breagh
MANY people wonder why INEOS is getting involved in oil & gas exploration. Questions are being asked as it steers its business out into the North Sea at a time when others are leaving.
But it is confident it can be the change the oil and gas industry needs to turn around ageing assets deemed unprofitable and unfit for the job.
So too is Geir Tuft, the man head-hunted to lead INEOS’ new offshore gas business INEOS Breagh which operates four platforms in the North Sea and owns interest in 16 exploration licences.
INCH caught up with Geir shortly after he moved into his new office in London as CEO of INEOS’ new gas subsidiary.
“I do not know where this journey will ultimately take me or INEOS but we are capable of making a big difference in the North Sea,” he said. “We are not in this for the short-term.”
In October INEOS bought all 12 UK North Sea gas fields owned by German firm DEA, which is part of the LetterOne Group. All the gas fields are close to INEOS’ assets in the North East and Scotland and provide about 8% of the UK’s gas, enough to warm one in 10 homes.
“That’s not insignificant and I think about that when I go home each day, knowing that I have got control over this,” said Geir.
Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman had been required to sell them by the British Government amid fears of sanctions against Moscow over Russia’s role in the Ukraine.
A few days after INEOS had agreed to buy DEA (UK), which included Clipper South platform, Fairfield Energy Holdings Ltd sold its 25% interest in the Clipper South, bringing 75% of it under INEOS’ control. Fairfield said it wanted to concentrate on decommissioning.
But INEOS’ interest in acquiring more North Sea gas fields is unlikely to end here.
“Virtually everything in the North Sea is for sale,” said Geir. “And we are the only buyers in a sea of sellers.”
In many ways these are unchartered waters for INEOS, but it classes itself as a ‘relative’.
“Although INEOS is a new entrant to the North Sea, the company has extensive experience in operating chemical plants of similar or greater complexity to these offshore platforms,” said Geir. “Our core focus on Safety Health and Environmental performance, reliability, high utilisation and competitive cash fixed costs, are attributes the mature North Sea needs to extend the life of assets and extract as much hydrocarbons as possible. We believe we can take these assets and improve their reliability and invest where the money is needed.”
The problems facing the UK oil and gas industry, which has been drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea since 1964, have been well documented.
In 2014 Pricewaterhouse Coopers was warning that a new vision and new ways of working were urgently needed to cement its position as a global oil and gas hub.
“It’s vital that we take a more strategic and integrated view to help extend the life of the North Sea for everyone involved and for future generations,” said Kevin Reynard, PwC’s senior partner in Aberdeen. “If we choose not to change, then we risk sleep-walking into an early sunset.”
Those views were echoed in June 2015 when it again urged oil and gas firms to heed lessons from other UK industries which had been forced to change or die.
“There is no escaping the fact that exploration and production is down on previous years” said Kevin. “The stark reality is that even if all the planned wells go ahead, the rate of drilling is still too low to recover even a fraction of the potential resources.”
PwC called for a step change in strategy. “Businesses need to innovate and collaborate as well as improve cost control and performance,” he said.
The UK Government has also been urging the industry since early 2014 to reduce operating costs, improve efficiency, exploit untapped reserves and spend more money on exploration.
“Our experience will be invaluable in this environment,” said Geir. “In fact we have extensive experience in acquiring, improving and managing assets deemed unprofitable. If any company on this planet can do it, it is INEOS.”
It is estimated that there are between 30 to 40 years of production – and an estimated 24 billion barrels of oil – remaining but the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts a 38% fall in oil revenue by 2017-2018.
To help boost ‘flagging’ North Sea production by 15% by the end of the decade, UK Chancellor George Osborne recently unveiled measures worth £1.3 billion over five years and also plans to partially fund new exploration work to help increase the region’s reserves.
The oil and gas industry knows it needs to reduce operating costs by billions and increase production efficiency if it is to remain competitive.
The high cost of running these assets was brutally exposed when oil prices suddenly dropped from $110 a barrel to $60 then again to below $40 at the end of the year (2015).
Geir, who has spent the past three years at INEOS’ Grangemouth site, is excited by what 2016 will bring.
“First we need to fully understand the business,” he said. “At the moment I feel as if I have one foot on firm ground because of what INEOS has already achieved and one foot in a dingy, where we have to be careful and learn because there is an element of this which is all new to us with exploration and sub-surface, geology and seismology.”
But by late January (2016), he will have a robust plan for growing the business to present to INEOS Capital.
The staff, who came with the sale of the LetterOne Group, are also optimistic about the future.
“After all the uncertainty there is a real sense of relief,” he said. “There is a very positive anticipation because they know we want to operate and develop the asset. We are in it for the long-term.”
One who agrees with that is Adrian Coker, Head of Exploration and New Business at INEOS Breagh.
We have effectively been through a two-year sale process,” he said. “First to LetterOne and then a forced onward sale to INEOS so we are quite pleased that we can finally move on and get back to business as normal.”
INEOS Chairman Jim Ratcliffe has already met the team.
“He is going against the current to a lot of people who are leaving the North Sea, but there are some good wins here to be had by someone with an entrepreneurial take on things,” said Adrian.
The existing, highly-experienced management team at DEA’s UK business will stay in place and run the business in a similar way to all INEOS’ other businesses.
“There won’t be a great deal of interference from head office,” said Jim. “It will be in its own independent box and the management will be charged with running that business.”
For INEOS, this is a very bold step into a new world but depending upon how this venture develops, it has the potential to transform the business in the way that INEOS’ acquisition of INNOVENE did in 2005.