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Interest in North Sea licensing round signals new confidence in region

Some 224 applications were submitted in May for the 27th  North Sea licensing round. It was the largest number of applications since offshore licensing began almost half a century ago in 1964.

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In the coming weeks the results of the largest ever North Sea licensing round will be unveiled.

Some 224 applications were submitted in May for this, the 27th round, which covers 418 blocks in the UK Continental Shelf.

It was the largest number of applications since offshore licensing began almost half a century ago in 1964.

The interest reflects an increased level of confidence among both major and junior firms working in the UK North Sea.

A rush of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity and a host of projects signed off are further signs of the region’s rude health.

It is a sea change from a few years ago when the fear was that the North Sea was in terminal decline.

The oil groups’ trade body, Oil & Gas UK recently reported that the second quarter this year was marked by what it called a "stable and positive" outlook in Britain's upstream oil and gas industry.

The key findings of the survey showed that the Oil and Gas UK confidence index overall was up one point compared to the first quarter this year - at 65 points - the highest since the series began almost four years ago. 

The report examined various indicators, including changes in activity levels, business revenue, investment and employment. 

Oil & Gas UK's supply chain director David Ripley said: “The general confidence level is similar to the previous quarter with activity remaining high which is encouraging.

"Operators are busy with a number of major projects, including several sanctioned last year, and appear buoyed by the tax changes aiming to promote investment that were announced following constructive dialogue between the Government and industry.”

In March this year, the sector received a tax boost from the UK Chancellor to entice new investment from cash rich oil firms into the North Sea.

The proposals included the expansion of the small field allowance, which now provides up to £150 million in tax relief on fields with up to 50 million barrels of recoverable oil reserves.

The budget also introduced a new field allowance targeted at the West of Shetland area.

It is estimated that the Chancellor's amendments alone boosted the industry’s spend this year to a whopping £11.5 billion, from £8.5 billion in 2011.

Cairn Energy (LON:CNE) is a stock which has recently focused investors' minds on the region.

Its £414 million bid for Nautical Petroleum (LON:NPE) was taken as a sign by City analysts of further evidence of consolidation in the region and followed a series of recent transactions in which larger oil companies bought interests in North Sea assets from  junior counterparts.

EnQuest (LON:ENQ), Premier Oil (LON:PMO), Centrica (LON:CNA) and the Kuwait National Oil Company have also been among those building up their North Sea interests.

Centrica bought Total’s portfolio of North Sea assets in a US$388 million deal in February.

In terms of newcomers, one high profile float connected to the region this year was Cluff Natural Resources (LON:CLNR) - the latest venture from veteran oil entrepreneur Algy Cluff - which hopes to exploit this new found buzz around the North Sea.

The business listed on AIM in May, raising £3.75 million, aiming to build a portfolio of assets, initially focusing on the North Seas, hoping to gain assets with the promise of early production and cashflow.

Elsewhere, Canadian-based junior Antrim Energy (LON:AEY) is progressing towards starting production from its reserves of 20 million net barrels of 2P oil reserves in the region.

On August 23, it told investors that drilling had started at the Contender prospect.

Another exploration firm, Trapoil (LON:TRAP), which is focused on the UKCS, is another firm which promises plenty of newsflow in the near future. It has made eight applications in the latest licensing round.

Earlier this year, it agreed to buy a 15 per cent stake in the now producing Athena oil filed in the outer Moray Firth.

Estimates of the field’s recoverable reserves have been put at 14.3 million barrels.

Last month, the company revealed that drilling will begin on the Romeo prospect - the next well in the current programme in late September or early October. 

Xcite Energy (LON:XEL, CVE:XEL) is another prominent name operating in the region. The company is developing the Bentley field in a phased programme. 

The current focus of operations is the pre-production testing programme, which includes a 90 day flow test (underway since early July). 

The test continues to produce at a rate of 3,200 barrels a day and production has now passed the crucial 45,000 barrel marker, the firm has said.

 

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