Friday, July 27, 2012

Schlumberger Invests $1 Billion Yearly in R & D

Schlumberger invests roughly $1 billion a year in research and development, a level it maintained even during the slump after the 2008 financial crisis. That is as much as the mighty ExxonMobil spends; as a share of sales, five times more. The big OFS companies now probably file more patent applications than the oil majors, whose technological skills are largely interpretive. _Economist

Innovations in directional drilling, advanced hydraulic fracturing, and increasing ability to drill more deeply into more types of terrain, are advancing the art of oil production worldwide. The companies which are pushing these technologies the most quickly are largely to be thanked for the revolutions in production across North America -- and in the deep ocean.

Oilfield services (OFS) firms such as Schlumberger are the unsung workhorses of the oil industry. They do most of the heavy lifting involved in finding and extracting oil and gas. They are far less well-known than the oil firms that hire them, but immensely lucrative. Schlumberger, with headquarters in Paris and Houston, earned profits of $5 billion on revenues of $40 billion last year. Its market capitalisation has risen fourfold in the past decade, to $91 billion. That is bigger than several international oil companies, including ENI ($82 billion), Statoil ($75 billion) and Conoco-Philips ($71 billion).

With the price of oil so high, firms are scrambling to pump it out of ever more remote and costly crevices. Over the past decade the oil industry’s annual spending on exploration and production has increased fourfold in nominal terms, while oil production is up by only 12%. The big services companies, which invest heavily in technology (see chart), have been growing by around 10% a year. According to McKinsey, a consultancy, OFS companies grossed around $750 billion last year.

The oil business is likely to grow even more dependent on brainy OFS firms. Global production from mature oilfields is falling by between 2% and 6% a year. In the North Sea it has declined by 6% a year on average since 1999. With global demand for oil growing by 1-2% a year, there are persistent fears of a supply shock. Hence the current high oil prices: even after a 20% fall in recent months, Brent Crude is now around $100 a barrel. Oil firms are searching harder in more remote places, such as the Arctic and the deep seas off Brazil. Operating in such places will require yet more snazzy technology.

Schlumberger is planning more of what it is best at: pushing the technological boundaries of extracting the black stuff. It has recently been busy making acquisitions—including of Smith International, an American drill-bit company, for $11.3 billion—which have given it know-how in most segments of exploration and production. It now hopes to re-engineer the entire process.

The prize of increased efficiencies—delivered in barrels of money, not oil—could be vast. A big deepwater drilling rig costs half a million dollars a day to rent, and can take three months to drill a complicated well. Any OFS company that can shave a few days off that time will be in the money. Drilling is thrilling, and getting more so. _Economist

Investment into innovative oil production and recovery technologies is one of the reasons why peak oil has been pushed back many decades past the time that peak oilers began to predict it. While cultists are chanting "EROEI - EROEI . . ." in darkened cloisters, more ambitious men and women are busy at work, solving problems.

It is a difference in philosophy and outlook, between the doomers, and those who have important things to do.

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