Deepwater Drillers: Just Dandy, or Downturn Ahead?

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Following my recent praise of Noble's (NYSE: NE  ) 2009 results, a reader asked about the risk of long-term rig overcapacity in the deepwater drilling market. It's an important question, and I'm happy to take a crack at it.

First, let's establish some terminology, which we'll borrow from Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) . When we talk about deepwater rigs, we mean either drillships or semisubmersibles that are able to operate in more than 4,500 feet of water. Ultra-deepwater rigs, a state-of-the-art subset, have a rated water depth of 7,500 feet or more. We'll later see that this is an important distinction.

Oil: Who needs it?
Let's start with demand for these drilling leviathans, which is ultimately driven by oil fundamentals. The dynamics of the oil market extend well beyond the scope of this article. But at a minimum, you need to believe two things in order to have confidence in the demand picture:

  1. Oil and its fellow hydrocarbons will power the global economy for decades to come.
  2. Oil prices will be high enough (call it $60 and up) to justify multibillion-dollar deepwater projects.

If you believe that resource access will remain an issue for international oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , that should further support your long-term outlook for deepwater rig demand. The industry's growing exploratory success, with a record-setting 23 deepwater discoveries in 2009, is also encouraging.

Let's get granular
On the supply side, we can drill down to a more detailed level, thanks to the disclosures of publicly traded drilling contractors.

In July 2008, Schlumberger's CEO noted that there were 68 deepwater rigs under construction around the world, which would double the world's fleet. That was the frothiest point in the market, when oil prices approached $150 a barrel and Transocean landed a five-year, $650,000-per-day contract with Eni. You know what happened next.

There's a multiyear lag from order to delivery, given the scope of these massive construction projects. Since orders for these rigs were piling up until the crash in 2008, we've still got two years of fairly heavy additions to the global fleet. In 2010 and 2011, a combined 53 "newbuild" ultra-deepwater rigs are hitting the water. If the market can digest this proverbial lump in the python, I think we can be pretty comfortable about the longer-term rig supply situation.

This is where the distinction between deepwater and ultra-deepwater (UDW) rigs is so important. Since last August, Transocean has been describing a bifurcation in the market. Back then, it seemed likely that some less capable deepwater rigs wouldn't find work as they rolled off contract. In the case of the two rigs Transocean highlighted, that's exactly what's happened. In addition, rigs like the GSF Celtic Sea, a moored deepwater semisubmersible, have repriced at significantly lower dayrates.

Fortunately, the freshly arriving UDW rigs aren't competing with the less capable crowd. In this area, there are few uncontracted rigs in 2010. Seadrill just signed a contract for the newbuild West Gemini at $473,000 per day, which arrives in July. That leaves Diamond Offshore's (NYSE: DO  ) Ocean Valor as the only other uncontracted newbuild arrival that I'm aware of among the publicly traded drillers. As far as existing UDW rigs coming off contract this year, Ensco (NYSE: ESV  ) has one finishing up work in September, while a few other operators' rigs come available in December.

When the storm blows in
In 2011, things get a bit dicier. This is when the most speculative late-cycle rigs arrive. In addition to one delivery each between established players Pride International (NYSE: PDE  ) , Ensco, and Seadrill, a slew of uncontracted rigs are being delivered to newer entrants like DryShips' (Nasdaq: DRYS  ) deepwater drilling subsidiary. At the same time, around 20 operating rigs are coming off contract.

The world's oil majors won't be so hard-nosed that they break the economics of the contract drilling business, but they will extract meaningful concessions when this short-term oversupply takes hold. Dayrates could easily break below $400,000 per day in this period. This softness may extend through 2012, as a large number of contract rollovers offset an ebb in newbuilds. Oil prices and exploration/development budgets will be a key swing factor in just how rough this period gets for the contract drillers.

A Foolish final word
While I would expect business failures among the more leveraged (and generally private) outfits, most of the public companies we're concerned with have very strong balance sheets. They should be able to not only weather the storm, but pick up some shiny new rigs at fire-sale prices. As far as current valuations, a 2011 downturn is already priced into the shares to some degree. I would view a deep sell-off in the group sometime later this year or in early 2011 as a very interesting long-term opportunity.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his CAPS profile or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (17)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2010, at 7:52 AM, moblackty wrote:

    Very good analysis in this market. Based on these contractors and that your assumptions are correct

    what are your anticipated buy-in points say 1-2 qtr of


  • Report this Comment On February 18, 2010, at 12:57 PM, TDRH wrote:

    To add weight to your arguement "They (majors) should be able to not only weather the storm, but pick up some shiny new rigs at fire-sale prices." Look to Diamonds purchase of Petrorig (Larsen Oil and Gas) units, already on contract with Petrobras, and delivered from Jurong shipyard in Singapore. In addition to Larsen look at Pacific Drilling with four rigs coming on line. There will be some assets available on the cheap as the new rigs come on line.

    When analyzing/weighing the companies also look to what they are building "naked" without contract.

  • Report this Comment On February 22, 2010, at 5:58 PM, XMFSmashy wrote:

    According to a new report, Macquarie sees 13 new, uncontracted floating rigs commissioned + available in 2011. Whether that constitutes a "slew" really depends on incremental demand. This may be more manageable than I had concluded.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2010, at 10:17 PM, DrBob66 wrote:

    "I would view a deep sell-off in the group sometime later this year or in early 2011 as a very interesting long-term opportunity."

    So why publish this article now? It's hardly "actionable" advice. Will you be re-printing it again if/when this "deep sell-off" occurs?

  • Report this Comment On April 29, 2010, at 12:07 AM, Thordog03 wrote:

    It may be actionable now. I have a position in Noble. Perhaps I should place a sell at a predetermined $ then place the proceeds in reserve to buy back additional shares during the dip.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 10:10 AM, ngass wrote:

    Even a Fool can be a fool! Peak oil is here and the oil price will reflect this. Goldman Sachs forecasts $100 at the end of the year. In the coming years we will have a triple digit oil price. The oil companies will scramble to keep their reserves from falling that will need a lot of drilling.

    You wrote: "I would view a deep sell-off in the group sometime later this year...." You have missed that the drilling companies such as RIG, NE, WFT, etc had already a deep sell-off of 40-50%. Your projected deep sell-off on top of the present deep sell-off would degrade these companies to junk. That is a ridiculous notion. Contrary what you say, these companies will recover in the light of the looming oil shortage.

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