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2015-03-07 22:05:00



Britain needs a new national oil company, not Russian oligarchs.

A new state-run oil company could also play an important role in kickstarting Britain's nascent shale oil and gas development.

Is the answer to Britain's problem of how to revitalise the North Sea creating a new national oil company?

At the very beginning of developing the region's life in the early 1970s, the Government turned to the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC) and the partly state-owned British Petroleum to kick start oil production offshore of Aberdeen.

At its peak in 1999, the North Sea produced around 4m barrels per day of oil and gas equivalent, which gave the UK almost complete energy security. Over its lifespan since 1968, around 40bn barrels of oil have been extracted and it is estimated that a further 16bn barrels still remain to be tapped.

The problem is that drilling for this oil will grow ever-more expensive as companies are forced to explore in deeper water on the very edge of the area known as the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) that lies west of the Shetland Isles.

That would be fine in normal circumstances. International oil companies are among the most technologically advanced corporations in the world. The North Sea has traditionally been used as the industry's testing and developing ground, helping it to push the boundaries of oil and gas exploration into deeper water and harsher environments.

But the cost of developing and applying the technology that is now required to extract oil from the North Sea is vast. And, oil prices of around $60 a barrel, arguably unsustainable.

In its latest annual report, offshore industry watchdog Oil & Gas UK painted a bleak picture for the North Sea unless the Chancellor George Osborne announces deep tax cuts for producers. Even if he does, its future is far from secure.

Last year, total revenues from the North Sea fell to their lowest level since 1998 and the industry will need to invest an estimated £94bn in order to produce the next 10bn barrels of reserves that are accessible.

The problem is that world-class international oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, Total and BP, which have been the backbone of the North Sea for the last 40 years, are now presented with an abundance of investment opportunities around the world.

From the Arctic, to South America and the Middle East, previously unreachable oil plays have opened up just at the time when falling prices has provided the international majors with increased bargaining power to negotiate more favourable terms with resource owners who are in some cases desperate for revenues.

Why invest in producing oil at a cost of $86 per barrel in the North Sea at a lower rate of return, when you can drill at a fraction of the cost elsewhere and secure access to larger reserves?

All this means that the Government has to work harder than ever to keep international investment locked into the North Sea, especially the right kind of investment. That's why Prime Minister David Cameron was right to block a deal that could see a group of Russian oligarchs led by Mikhail Fridman from seizing control of 12 North Sea gas fields. Mr Fridman's Luxembourg-based LetterOne investment vehicle has been given a week to justify its case for buying the assets and address concerns that it could be hit by the imposition of tighter US and European sanctions against Russia.

Former BP chief executive Lord Browne of Madingley who has been hired by Mr Fridman to head up his energy holding company L1 has defended the deal saying that the Government can't afford to turn away investment from the North Sea with oil prices at the their current lows.

Lord Browne may have a point and if the Government is minded to force a sale of the fields bought by Mr Fridman and his associates through the acquisition of the German utility RWE's oil and gas assets then it may struggle to find another buyer.

The solution to this predicament would be to create a new national oil and gas champion in the footsteps of BNOC, which could take on the assets. Funded initially by the taxpayer, a new BNOC could act as a useful counterweight to seeing third-tier oil explorers and fly-by-night speculators snap up North Sea assets on the cheap but return little in terms of our energy security, or investment.

Elsewhere in the world the national oil company model has worked quite well and helped asset-owning countries to smooth out the peaks and troughs of the oil market. State-owned Saudi Aramco - which benefits from a monopoly over the world's largest proven onshore reserves - is widely acknowledged to be a highly competent operating company that can compete in technology terms with even the most advanced international majors.

In Norway, Statoil which is acknowledged to have done a good job of developing the Scandinavian country's sizeable oil and gas reserves on its side of the North Sea has thrived under majority government ownership. Norway's government has sold down its stake in the company over the years through an initial public offering - which allowed Norwegians to benefit directly from the North Sea - but still retains a 67pc stake in the business.

Statoil has helped Norway to ensure investment in its area of the North Sea despite fluctuations in the oil prices and the company has now grown into one of the biggest European operators with investments all over the world.

Britain's equivalent to Statoil, orginally known as BNOC, was folded into Britoil in the early 1980s. The company was then was gobbled up by BP in 1988 a few years after it had been listed on the London Stock Exchange leaving Britain without a national champion in the oil and gas industry.

Given the harsh new realities of attracting the right kind of investment into the North Sea now could be the right time to revive the idea of a new British National Oil Company. This would help to fill the void that is left as companies like Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total gradually start to moderate their investment in the region.

A new state-run oil company could also play an important role in kickstarting Britain's nascent shale oil and gas development, which has so far struggled to generate much interest among the industry's big players. Within a decade such an entity would have helped to bridge the gap in North Sea investment and helped to guarantee Britain's energy security for the foreseable future, with the prospect of returning that value back to the public through an IPO.

It would certainly make mores sense than seeing our finite oil and gas assets slip into the hands of Russian oligarchs.


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