Grant Bradley

Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

Pain at pump offset by $2bn exports

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Motorists dismayed at paying record prices for petrol at the pump can take some cold comfort from a new report on an oil and gas sector responsible for $2 billion of petroleum exports a year.

There's more oil than previously thought out there and the chances of finding it are improving with the surge in exploration around the world and in this country.

This doesn't necessarily equate to less pain at the pump for New Zealand drivers as prices are internationalised, but tax and royalty revenue has soared here in the past five years.

And while high-profile offshore operations seem as if they are a long time coming, analysis by Edison Investment Research in its inaugural New Zealand Petroleum Sector Yearbook finds that nearly $7 billion has been invested in the oil and gas sector during the past five years.

"No other local sector comes close to matching the magnitude of this investment in new productive capacity," the report says.

This week the National Bank's regional trends survey showed employment and house price growth in June was strongest in Taranaki - the epicentre of robust growth in oil and gas production and exploration.

The yearbook finds that in 2004 exports from petroleum sales totalled $502 million but by 2008 this had surged five-fold to $2.63 billion.

Despite falling production at the offshore Taranaki Tui field and the collapse of the oil price at the height of the global financial crisis, exports remained above $2 billion for each of the past three years.

However the latest trade data from Statistics New Zealand says crude oil exports for the year ended July 31 fell 2.9 per cent to $1.98 billion.

The Edison Investment Research report was led by energy sector analyst, John Kidd and finds that despite the Taranaki basin having yielded more than two billion barrels of oil equivalent products and being home to the world-scale Maui gas condensate field, some international explorers remain unconvinced about the country's potential.

Global players liked the low "country risk" with New Zealand's political and legislative support but that was balanced against the exploration risk in a remote country where few wells have been sunk.

In an overview of the importance of the New Zealand sector, the yearbook finds:

* The petroleum sector contributes enormously "but largely silently" to New Zealand's economy. Crude oil is the most valuable export to our biggest market, Australia.

* Since 2008/09 the Government has received more cash as royalty payments from upstream oil and gas producers than it received from its state-owned enterprise portfolio.

* The backlog of offshore prospects is significant and should support at least one and as many as three rigs in New Zealand waters next summer. More than $2 billion has been committed or indicated for exploration over the current two years.

The publication says political will and support for the sector run deep but government support is implicit rather than explicit.

"Government ambivalence in taking the lead on difficult issues risks alienating investors and ultimately losing many billions of dollars of forgone investment capital and ultimately earnings to the Crown."

The deployment of former Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee to oversee the Christchurch earthquake meant the petroleum sector was dealt a blow to its momentum, the yearbook says.

The latest minister, Phil Heatley, has kept a low profile "amid speculation that the portfolio is likely to increasingly find its way under an economic development mandate and the leadership of Steven Joyce, who ranks fourth in Cabinet".

Two issues were bearing down on sector decision making.

The first related to the governance over the exclusive economic zone and the extended continental shelf which, while broadly supported by the industry, created concerns about delays which led to an increasing certainty there will be no offshore drilling this summer.

There is also a feeling the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's inquiry into hydraulic fracturing or fracking is "worrisome".

"An outright ban or moratorium on the technology would in our view undermine New Zealand's competitive position relative to its peers by adding a new dimension of country risk to the local equation."

Opponents of fracking say it could lead to groundwater contamination, but the yearbook says it is the future of the global industry.

Despite a lack of recent success with exploration offshore - which accounts for two-thirds of the declared resource - the market had been bolstered by onshore activity where success rates during the past 18 months had been "phenomenal".

On Wednesday NZX-listed New Zealand Oil & Gas said it was looking hard at onshore activity and assessing bidding for exploration blocks or farm-ins with existing players in its quest for a more diverse earnings stream than its traditional reliance on offshore Taranaki oil and gas.

Throughout New Zealand explorers have almost 90 wells planned during the next two years and they span all of the Taranaki basin and parts of the East Coast and Great South basins.

The report says exploration spending could spike to "unprecedented levels". Including Maui A and B programmes up to 28 offshore wells are committed to or likely to be completed over the next two years. At least 60 onshore wells are also slated.

Long-term onshore Taranaki work programmes of Todd Energy, Greymouth Petroleum, TAG Oil, New Zealand Energy Corporation and Kea Petroleum will underpin a substantial and prolonged investment across the region.

Texas-based Anadarko and Australia's Origin Energy hope to drill in the Canterbury Basin this coming summer. Brazil's Petrobras is facing an ongoing battle with Maori and Greenpeace over its plans to prospect in deep water off the East Cape.

International rates for rigs are about $350,000 a day, which is why explorers form "clubs" to share the cost.

How oil production affects prices at your petrol pump

In the local market the upstream exploration and production sector has very little bearing on the downstream market for petrol, Edison analyst John Kidd says.

The average weekly retail price for petrol was $2.23 a litre on Wednesday, compared with $2.01 a year ago and $1.69 three years ago.

Locally produced crudes are of a light-sweet specification typically priced to a premium Brent benchmark, most of which is exported from Taranaki to refineries on the Australian east coast.

Northland's Marsden Pt takes a medium-sour blend into its feedstock, nearly all of which is imported. With Marsden Pt only meeting around 70 per cent of local demand, significant quantities of refined oil products are imported from Singapore, Australia and South Korea.

Even the refining fees charged by the Marsden Pt refinery on locally produced fuel are set from international refining margin benchmarks. Just like milk powder, butter, lamb and timber, the local oil sector is heavily internationalised and local pump prices are determined largely by the global markets.

Kidd says the Taranaki region has particular reason to be upbeat, with an unprecedented level of onshore and offshore activity likely over the next one to two years.

Longer-term, assuming exploration success, the benefits would flow more broadly as New Zealand's still heavy economic dependence on imported energy would fall and its royalty and tax take would rise.

Back to business after disaster

The environmental impact of the disaster was huge. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico had far-reaching consequences for the industry and resulted in an estimated five million barrels of oil spilled into the sea - the equivalent of 90 minutes of global oil demand, Edison Investment Research says.

The disaster served as "a wake-up call of monumental environmental and commercial proportions" for the oil and gas sector. "Environmentally, the consequences of the mistakes made aboard and beneath the Deepwater Horizon were catastrophic and relayed to the world with a rawness not previously seen," the Edison NZ Petroleum Sector Yearbook says.

There was speculation that BP would seek bankruptcy protection. However, activity in the Gulf was now back to pre-disaster levels, reflecting "the reality of the global supply/demand equation".

- NZ Herald

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