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More than $100bn of spending on new projects by the world’s energy companies has been slowed, postponed or axed following the oil price plunge, evidence of the drastic industry action that will curb output in coming years.

Companies including Royal Dutch Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Statoil have led moves to curtail capital spending on 26 major projects worldwide, according to analysis commissioned for the Financial Times.

The delays and cancellations, many disclosed quietly in recent weeks and months, come amid a wider retrenchment by the industry that has seen thousands lose their jobs and led to a slowdown in the US shale boom.

The research by consultancy Rystad Energy shows that producers have targeted some of the highest-cost areas as they have trimmed spending, with nine Canadian oil sands projects put back, each ranging from $1bn to $10bn in planned expenditure.

“Things are moving to the right and the particular area that is suffering is western Canada,” said Alastair Syme, energy analyst at Citigroup.

“It is one area of the world outside US shale, where companies are actually stopping investment in train.”

After reaching $115 a barrel last June, the price of oil plummeted to a low of $45 in January, as surging output of US shale oil and softening demand in Asia stoked a glut in the market. The decline accelerated after Opec, led by Saudi Arabia, decided not to cut production to support prices. Crude has since rebounded to around $66.

While the $118bn total expenditure would be spread over several years, the impact of deferring investment on such projects would be to delay future production, with as many as 1.5m barrels a day — nearly 2 per cent of global oil output in 2013 — to come two years later than planned, said Rystad.

The project deferrals that have already been announced could be just the start of a big wave of delays. Goldman Sachs has identified 61 new projects, more than half of those awaiting final approval, as uneconomic at an oil price of $60 a barrel, putting more than $750bn of capital expenditure at risk and 10.5m barrels a day of peak production.

Seventeen countries, including Angola, Nigeria, Australia and Algeria, were likely to see investment in projects fall by more than 50 per cent between now and 2020 assuming prices stayed low, Goldman’s Michele della Vigna said.

Calgary-based Cenovus Energy said it had deferred work on its 130,000 barrels a day Narrows Lake oil sands development “due to the substantial decline in crude oil prices”. It added: “We are taking advantage of the slower pace of development to optimise our engineering and execution strategy.”

Other “heavy” oil projects, where extraction is closer to mining than conventional drilling, have been halted. Carlos Cabrera, executive chairman of Ivanhoe Energy, told the FT that its Pungarayacu project in Ecuador had been suspended in part because “the precipitous drop in the oil price” had rendered uneconomic production of a possible 2bn-3bn barrels.

US-based Conoco, meanwhile, confirmed it had “stopped” developing the Tommeliten Alpha discovery, southwest of the Ekofisk field in the Norwegian North Sea. Nils Andersen, chief executive of Denmark’s Maersk Group, said last week it was “renegotiating” supply deals for its “challenged” deepwater Chissonga project in Angola.

“The oil situation has changed due to low oil price and we aim to reduce the investment level as a result of that,” he said.

One of the biggest developments to be shelved, Shell’s Arrow liquefied natural gas plant in Australia, accounted for almost a quarter of the spending Rystad said had been put back or cut. The consultancy examined projects with reserves of at least 50m barrels of oil equivalent.

Other data illustrate the speed with which oil companies have reacted to the crude price collapse. According to Morgan Stanley, which has looked at capex guidance for 2015 from more than 120 companies, their investment is expected to drop by a quarter this year, from $520bn to $389bn.

The severity of the capex cuts could lead to a substantial rebound in Brent crude. The bank expects oil to rise from $66 a barrel to $85 in 2017. “The longer oil prices remain low, the more prices may rise longer term, given that current weakness discourages future investment.”

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan


Letter in response to this report:

Time for governments to price in the true cost of oil / Bob Ward

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