“That’s the wonderful thing about price signals in a free market — it puts people in a better position to take more exploration risk,” said James T. Hackett, chairman and chief executive of Anadarko Petroleum.
More than 200 discoveries have been reported so far this year in dozens of countries, including northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, Australia, Israel, Iran, Brazil, Norway, Ghana and Russia. They have been made by international giants, like Exxon Mobil , but also by industry minnows, like Tullow Oil.
Just this month, BP said that it found a giant deepwater field that might turn out to be the biggest oil discovery ever in the Gulf of Mexico, while Anadarko announced a large find in an “exciting and highly prospective” region off Sierra Leone.
It is normal for companies to discover billions of barrels of new oil every year, but this year’s pace is unusually brisk. New oil discoveries have totaled about 10 billion barrels in the first half of the year, according to IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. If discoveries continue at that pace through year-end, they are likely to reach the highest level since 2000.
While recent years have featured speculation about a coming peak and subsequent decline in oil production, people in the industry say there is still plenty of oil in the ground, especially beneath the ocean floor, even if finding and extracting it is becoming harder. They say that prices and the pace of technological improvement remain the principal factors governing oil production capacity.
While the industry is celebrating the recent discoveries, many executives are anxious about the immediate future, fearing that lower prices might jeopardize their exploration drive. The world economy is weak, oil prices have tumbled from last year’s records, corporate profits have shrunk, and global demand for oil remains low. After falling to $34 in December, oil prices have doubled, stabilizing near $70 a barrel. But if the world economy does not pick up, some analysts believe the price could fall again.
Oil companies contend that is not a prospect they can afford. Despite reaping record profits in recent years, many executives have warned that they need prices above $60 a barrel to develop the world’s more challenging reserves. In fact, some exploration activity has already slowed this year, as producers seek better terms from service companies and contractors.
It is not just oil that is benefiting from the exploration boom. Repsol, Spain’s biggest oil company, said this month that it had discovered what could turn out to be Venezuela’s biggest natural gas field. In recent years, companies have found substantial natural gas reserves in the United States, from shale rocks once believed to be impossible to drill.
“The No. 1 question that exploration teams have right now is, Where do we go next?” said Robert Fryklund, who ran the operations of ConocoPhillips in Libya and Brazil, and is a vice president in Houston at Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
Exploration spending swelled in recent years, partly to offset a doubling of costs throughout the industry — from steel prices to the cost of renting deepwater drilling rigs. A big issue confronting the industry now is how to drive down costs while maintaining a high level of exploration. On average, costs have fallen by 15 to 20 percent from their peak, according to petroleum executives.
Exploration remains a risky, and costly, business, where some deepwater wells can cost up to $100 million. From 30 to 50 percent of exploration wells find oil.
Some executives are also worried the world might face a shortfall in supplies in coming years if another decline in oil prices causes exploration to falter.
The chief executive of the French oil giant Total, Christophe de Margerie, has warned that such a supply crunch is possible by the middle of the next decade. “There could be a shortage of capacity,” he said.