Mero Revolutions: countering CO2 in pre-salt Brazil?

The super-giant Mero field in pre-salt Brazil is not like its predecessors. While prolific, it has a 2x higher gas cut, of which c45% is corrosive and environmentally unpalatable CO2. Hence, Petrobras, Shell, TOTAL and two Chinese Majors are pushing the boundaries of deepwater technology. Our new, 16-page note assess four innovation areas, which could unlock $2bn of NPV upside. But the distribution of outcomes remains broad. $4bn is at risk if the CO2-challenges are not overcome.


Page 2 provides background on pre-salt Brazil, especially the flagship Lula project, which a new super-giant, Mero, is trying to emulate.

Page 3-4 contrast Mero to Lula, based on data from flow-tests. Mero has a 2x higher gas-cut and c8x higher CO2.

Page 5 reviews Petrobras’s own internal concerns over CO2-handling at Mero, and how they are expected to sway the decline rates at the field.

Page 6 outlines our valuation of the Mero oilfield, testing different CO2-handling scenarios. Our full model is also available.

Pages 7-8 review Mero’s FPSO design adaptations, to handle the field’s higher gas and CO2. These will be 2-2.5x larger FPSOs than Lula, by tonnage.

Pages 8-10 illustrate pipeline bottlenecks facing pre-salt Brazil. After considering alternative options (re-injection, LNG), we argue more pipelines may be needed.

Pages 10-12 describe riser innovations, which may help handle the risks of CO2-corrosion at Mero. One option is overly complex. The other is more promising.

Pages 12-16 cover the holy grail for Mero’s CO2, which is subsea CO2 separation. This would be a major industry advance, and unlock further billion-barrel resource opportunities. Upcoming hurdles and challenges are assessed.

Pages 15-16, in particular, cover Shell’s industry-leading deepwater technology, which may be helpful in maximising value from the resource, longer-term.

Does Technology Drive Returns?

Technology drives 30-60% of energy companies’ return on capital. This is our conclusion after correlating 10 energy companies’ ROACEs against 3,000 patent filings. Above average technologies are necessary to generate above-average returns.


For the first time, we have been able to test the relationship between oil companies’ technical abilities and their Returns on Average Capital Employed (ROACE).

In the past, technical capabilities have been difficult to quantify, hence this crucial dimension has been overlooked by economic analysis in the energy sector.

Our new methodology stems from our database of 3,043 patents, filed by the Top 25 leading energy companies in 2018. The data cover upstream, downstream, chemicals and new energy technologies (chart below) . All the patents are further summarised, “scored” and classed across 40 sub-categories.

The methodology is to correlate our patent-scores for each company with the ROACE generated by the company in 2018. We ran these correlations at both the corporate level and the segment level…

Results: patent filings predict returns

Patent filings predict corporate returns. In 2018, the average of the Top 10 Integrated Oil Majors generated a Return on Average Capital Employed (ROACE) of 11%, based on our adjusted, apples-to-apples calculation methodology. These returns are 54% correlated with the number of patents filed by each Major (chart below).

Technology leaders are implied to earn c5% higher corporate returns than those deploying industry-average technologies, which is a factor of 2x.

Upstream patent filings also predict upstream returns, with an 85% correlation coefficient. The data are skewed by one Middle East NOC, which earns exceptionally high returns on capital, but even excluding this datapoint, the correlation coefficient is 65% (chart below).

The curve is relatively flat, with the exception of two outliers, implying that it is hardest to improve general upstream returns using technology. This may be because upstream portfolios are vast, spanning many different asset-types and geographies.

Downstream patent filings predict downstream returns, with an 80% correlation coefficient (chart below). However, our sample size is smaller, as we were unable to dis-aggregate downstream ROACE for all the Majors.

The curve is very steep, indicating that downstream technology leaders can surpass c20% returns on capital, versus c10% using industry-standard technologies.

Chemical patent filings predict chemical returns, with a 57% correlation coefficient (chart below). Again, our sample size is smaller, as we could only estimate chemicals ROACEs for some of the Majors.

The curve is also steep, with technology leaders earning c10-20% returns, versus low single digit returns for less differentiated players.

Overall, the results should matter for investors in the energy sector, for capital allocation within corporates, and for weighing up the benefits of in-house R&D. We would be delighted to discuss the underlying data with you in more detail.

Patent Partners: Pairing Up?

This note contains our ‘Top Five’ conclusions about the Oil Majors’ research partnerships, drawing off our database of 3,500 oil company patents. Different companies have importantly different approaches. We can quantify this, by looking at the number of patents co-filed with partners (chart above).

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Is the world investing enough in energy?

Global energy investment will need to rise by c$220-270bn per annum by 2025-30, according to the latest data from the IEA, which issued its ‘World Energy Investment’ report this week. We think the way to achieve this is via better energy technologies.

Specifically, the world invested $1.6bn in new energy supplies in 2018, which must be closer to $1.8-1.9bn, to meet future demand in 2025-30– whether emissions are tackled or not. The need for oil investment is most uncertain. More gas investment is needed in any scenario. And renewables investment must rise by 15-100%.

Note: data above includes $1.6trn investment in energy supplies and c$250bn in energy efficiency measures

Hence the report strikes a cautious tone: “Current market and policy signals are not incentivising the major reallocation of capital to low-carbon power and efficiency that would align with a sustainable energy future. In the absence of such a shift, there is a growing possibility that investment in fuel supply will also fall short of what is needed to satisfy growing demand”.

We do not think the conclusions are surprising. Our work surveying 50 investors last year found that fears over the energy transition are elevating capital costs for conventional energy investments (below).

Meanwhile, low returns make it challenging to invest at scale in renewables.

We argue better energy technologies are the antidote to attracting capital back into the industry. That is why Thunder Said Energy focuses on the opportunities arising from energy technologies. Please see further details in our recent note, ‘What the Thunder Said’. For all our ‘Top Technologies’ in energy, please see here.

References

IEA (2019). World Energy Investment. International Energy Agency.

TRLs: When does technology get exciting?

We categorised 300 of the Oil Majors’ technologies according to their technical maturity. We find the most exciting examples are not the most technically mature, but those on the cusp of commercialisation. Majors that work on earlier-stage technologies also have better overall technologies (c50% correlation coefficient). Hence, to create value, it is important to maintain a constant funnel of technology opportunities.


When we assess an energy technology, we score it on four dimensions: how far does it advance the industry-standard? How large is the potential economic impact? How proprietary is it? And finally, is it “ready”?

To quantify the final category, we use the industry-standard conceptual framework of ‘Technology Readiness Levels’ (TRLs), which are summarised below. It is worth being familiar with this categorization, as it recurs throughout our work.

But when do technologies get exciting?

To some extent, “excitement” depends upon your perspective. Venture funds may find most value on the earlier rungs of the ladder. But most companies and investors get excited in the later stages. We can measure this. The results are surprising.

Below, we have summarised our “TSE Technology Scores” for 300 technologies, used by the 25 oil and gas companies that we follow. The highest scores appear to be for technologies at Readiness Level Seven (chart below).

Even though these technologies are less mature than TRLs 8-9, we think they are more exciting. This is unexpected. As discussed above, our “Technology Scores” specifically award higher marks to more mature technologies, and penalise those that are less mature.

On the other hand, maybe it is not so surprising. Opportunities at TRL7 are, by definition, new and cutting-edge. Conversely, the shine tends to wear off for more mature technologies, that have already spread around the industry.

What does it means for companies?

If the most exciting technologies are the ones on the cusp of commercialisation, it is important that leading companies can embrace them. We think the answer is to maintain a rich funnel of opportunities, including those at earlier stages. Our data suggest that the technology-leaders around the industry are doing exactly this…

Below, we rank the 25 oil and gas companies that we follow. We find a 50% correlation between the companies that are working on ‘earlier stage’ technologies and those that have better overall technologies.

“Technology Scores” across 25 Oil and Gas companies, which are tracked by TSE

Investable insights. To develop a lead in technology, you have to be involved in developing technology. If your sole approach is to buy mature technologies off the shelf, you will only access them later, and with less theoretical context than the leaders. We think this explains the correlation above. We also think it matters for investing in the best energy companies, where technical capabilities are starkly different (below).

“Technology Scores” across 20 Oil and Gas Companies, which are tracked by TSE

How can we help? For our full database of 300 technologies, scores by company, or by industry sub-segment, please contact us. We can also provide consultancy services on your company, highlighting areas where there is most scope for improvement, by reference to peers’ best-practices.

Can Technology Revive Offshore Oil?

The appetite to invest in new offshore oil projects has been languishing, due to fears over the energy transition, a preference for share-buybacks, and intensifying competition from short-cycle shale. So can technology revive offshore and deep-water? This note outlines our ‘top twenty’ opportunities. They can double deep-water NPVs, add c4-5% to IRRs and improve oil price break-evens by $15-20/bbl.


Pages 9-18 of the note outline each of our ‘top twenty’ focus areas, after reviewing 1,500 patents and 300 technologies across the industry. In each case, we outline which companies are most advanced.

Our work shows it is essential to invest with – or have your resources managed by – technology leaders. The industry must also keep improving, to re-excite investment.

U.S. Shale: Winner Takes All?

Shale is a ‘tech’ industry. The technology keeps improving at an incredible pace. But Permian technology is improving fastest, extending its lead over other basins.

These are our conclusions from assessing 300 technical papers across the shale industry in 2018. They are outlined in a new, 10-page note.


Across the board, we found 30% of our 300 technical papers should improve future economics. 60% were highly digital, and thus tended to be more impactful. Advanced analytics are still in an early innings.

The Permian stood out, extending its lead over other basins. It produced c25% of all the research; 25% higher-impact research and 40% more data-driven research.

Why the Thunder Said?

Energy transition is underway. Or more specifically, five energy transitions are underway at the same time. They include the rise of renewables, shale oil, digital technologies, environmental improvements and new forms of energy demand. This is our rationale for establishing a new research consultancy, Thunder Said Energy, at the nexus of energy-technology and energy-economics.

This 8-page report outlines the ‘four goals’ of Thunder Said Energy; and how we hope we can help your process…


Pages 2-5 show how disruptive energy technologies are re-shaping the world: We see potential for >20Mbpd of Permian production, for natural gas to treble, for ‘digital’ to double Oil Major FCF, and for the emergence of new, multi-billion dollar companies and sub-industries amidst the energy transition.

Page 6 shows how we are ‘scoring’ companies: to see who is embracing new technology most effectively, by analysing >1,000 patents and >400 technical papers so far.

Page 7 compiles quotes from around the industry, calling for a greater focus on technology.

Page 8 explains our research process, and upcoming publication plans.

Under-investment risks in the energy transition?

Fears over the energy transition are now restricting investment in fossil fuels, based on our new paper, published in conjunction with the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, linked here.    

They have elevated capital costsby 4-7% for oil and by c25% for coal, compared with the early 2010s.

  • One consequence will be to concentrate capital into renewables, gas,  and shorter-cycle oil projects (i.e.,  shale).
  • But there will also be negative consequences, risking long-run supply shortages of oil and coal.
  • Companies are also being pressured to ‘harvest’ their existing assets, rather than maximising potential value in the 2020s, which may impact valuations.  

For further details please see the full paper, linked here, or contact us. 

250-years of Energy Disruption?

In 2018, we reviewed 250-years of energy transitions, arguing that another great energy transition is now on hand.

It will occur over the next century. Thus for another hundred years, today’s energy industry will remain vitally important. In addition, new sources of supply will create unimaginable new sources of energy demand.

A podcast summarising the work is available from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.