Oil and Gas Field Exploration Services

SIC 1382

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers establishments engaged primarily in performing geophysical, geological, and other exploration services for oil and gas on a contract or fee basis.

Industry Snapshot

Companies performing oil and gas exploration services are most often divisions or subsidiaries of major oil companies, although the industry also boasts several significant independent contractors. Many of the industry's leaders are known as integrated companies, which covers the entire oil and gas industry, from exploration to refining to distribution. As such, the exploration branch of the industry is affected by trends in the field as a whole.

For example, in 1998 a drop in world oil prices led to a collapse in exploration and drilling activity. During that time the number of natural gas drilling rigs fell 40 percent, but rebounded by 2001 to produce at record levels, then declined again. When oil and gas prices are suppressed, companies often cut costs by idling exploratory drilling. During 2003 the U.S. war against Iraq, as well as a workers' strike in Venezuela, pushed oil prices back up. As a result, oil companies had revenues to once again pursue increased exploration activities.

In the United States, more than half of the undiscovered conventional natural gas is in the Gulf Coast. Unconventional gas is concentrated in the Colorado Plateau and Basin and Range Region and the Eastern Region.

Partly because the United States is considered a mature oil region, the major U.S. companies--ExxonMobil and Chevron (which, along with European giants BP and Royal Dutch/Shell, control the U.S. market)focused their exploration efforts elsewhere. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that the increases in the U.S. majors' exploration and development expenditures were mostly directed toward the North Sea and Southeast Asia.

As of 2004, North Sea oil production stood at 21 percent of the world's supply. However, by 2015 the region's production was predicted to fall to 11 percent. At that time, the focus is expected to turn to the Middle East with large reserves, as well as Africa and Latin America in search of deep waters. The Middle East is anticipated to represent 21 percent of oil exploration and production, Africa 19 percent, and Latin America 18 percent.

As the price of oil rises the industry majors were poised for expansion in 2011, with focus on offshore exploration. In fact, by 2014 roughly 63 percent of majors endeavors will be derived from "�offshore--shallow water and deepwater." Shell reported as much as 13 projects slated for oil and gas exploration to commence by the end of 2011. Unfortunately, following the BP oil spill, the overall industry can expect additional regulatory reform as well as rising costs.

Organization and Structure

Much of the exploration process is done before wells are actually drilled. Once a company obtains the mineral rights to the land it wishes to drill, three-dimensional (3-D) seismography, aboveground sonic sampling, and other methodologies determine where oil is most likely to be found. Once seismographic data about either underground or sea floor rock is collected, it is analyzed for signs of oil or gas deposits, a process that takes several months. A likely area is then selected, and exploratory or "wildcat" wells are drilled to confirm suspicions. If the area is known to have oil, "development" wells are drilled. There are legal regulations on the number of wells that can be drilled in a given area by "infill drilling." Drilling to test the possibilities for expanding an oil field is done with "stepout" wells. Finally, wells that turn up no product, or too little to make continued drilling feasible, are called "dry holes."

While drilling, a rig, which is made up of a derrick and surface equipment, is set up over the target area, and a bit is attached to a drill stem that is lowered into the earth. In the most common setup, called rotary drilling, a rotating bit connected to a hollow pipe breaks up the earth. Fluids called "mud," made up of clay, water, and other ingredients, are injected through the pipe to cool the rotating bit and carry broken rock back to the surface. Often a hollow casing is placed in the well to keep the walls from caving in and to protect the contents of the well from outside influences of water or gas. Oil and gas are removed simultaneously through narrow tubing that bring the substances to the surface.

The crude oil that wells up without pumping is culled using primary recovery methods, during which time most of the available oil is recovered. In secondary recovery, additional effort is expended to remove the oil. Most often, the well is flooded with water to flush out the oil. Finally, in some wells, tertiary recovery methods, such as injecting steam or gases into the well, help flush out the heaviest, most viscous oil. Wells may be "shut in," their valves closed, during the wait for a pipeline connection or even when the oil and gas market is depressed and further drilling becomes financially difficult. Once a well is dry, it is plugged, usually being filled with cement or mud, and abandoned.

Drilling for natural gas is similar to drilling for oil, but gas must be liquefied before it can be shipped. Apart from the natural gas liquids (NGL) that occur naturally at a well, all gas obtained must be cooled and pressurized into liquid natural gas (LNG) for transportation. NGL is mainly ethane, propane, butane, and natural gasoline while the gas from LNG is mainly composed of propane, propylene, butanes, and butylenes.

The amount of oil obtained is measured in barrels (bbls), one of which is equal to 42 U.S. gallons. Natural gas is measured in thousand cubic feet (mcf), one of which equals one million BTUs (British thermal unit) of energy at one atmosphere of pressure. One barrel of oil is equal to six mcf.

Background and Development

Field exploration in the petroleum industry began in earnest in 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled the first successful oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Previously, oil was obtained only where it seeped from the ground. Drake's discovery went to feed the burgeoning need for kerosene for lamps, but before long lamp oil made from oil replaced that made from coal.

Among the rash of speculators who entered the exploration business was John D. Rockefeller, who soon turned away from exploration, which he considered too much of a financial risk, and moved to refining and transporting the fuel already obtained. For the next 50 years, Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company expanded by any means necessary, engaging competitors in price wars or buying them out when they became a threat. Standard Oil remained unchallenged until exploration in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma led to the rise of companies such as Gulf and Texaco. While Standard's oil fields were in the United States, it began exporting its products to the European and Far Eastern markets, competing with both Shell (then the Shell Transport and Trading Company) and the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company. Standard Oil made several unsuccessful attempts to buy or control Shell. Royal Dutch and Shell began cooperating with each other, partly in an attempt to compete with Standard Oil, and eventually united into one company, today the second-largest worldwide. In 1909 the Standard Oil Trust was deemed illegal under antitrust charges, and the U.S. Supreme Court ordered it to be dissolved. Broken up into over 30 companies, the offshoots of Standard Oil still retained immense industry influence, eventually spawning Jersey Standard (later Exxon), Socony and Vacuum (later Mobil), Standard of California (later Chevron), Atlantic (later ARCO), and Standard of Indiana (Amoco), among others.

U.S. exploration on the part of the major American oil companies (known as the Seven Sisters) produced what for a while seemed to be a never-ending stream of resources. It was not until the 1920s that they began foreign exploration, mostly to check the power of British companies drilling in the Middle East. However, foreign exploration came with a price. In the 1940s Venezuela demanded half of the income generated from drilling within its borders. Other countries followed suit, stemming in part from the huge profits flowing into U.S. companies from overseas. Challenges also came from smaller independent oil companies such as Marathon and Getty. At the same time, exploration efforts uncovered new sources of revenue in natural gas, often found with oil deposits. Once it was discovered how to trap and transport the gas, it became another focus of exploration.

Another challenge to U.S. oil companies came with the 1960 formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), made up of eight Middle Eastern countries that were heavy producers of oil. This cartel used its power to push up the price of oil from $1.80 a barrel in the 1960s to more than $3.00 a barrel in 1973. Prices rose further when a 1973 OPEC embargo aimed at punishing U.S. support of Israel led to a national energy crisis in which the United States became aware of its dependence on foreign oil. Meanwhile, U.S. oil companies came under attack for profiting unfairly from the embargo. The state of the oil and gas exploration industry was further affected by increased emphasis on alternative energy sources, such as hydroelectric, nuclear, and solar energy.

In the late twentieth century, the oil industry made significant cutbacks in exploration, production, and corporate staffs. Slim profits, surplus inventories, and low prices cooled the fever to explore for new oil and gas fields. In some cases, such as with the 1984 purchase of Gulf Oil by Chevron, companies were bought out or restructured. By the early 1990s, the industry had still not returned to its boom status. It entered 1994 with several years of cutbacks, employee layoffs, and flat earnings behind it. By the mid-1990s, though, the downhill slump made an extraordinary turnaround. U.S. oil companies experienced strong profits during the second quarter of 1996. Compared to the same period only one year earlier, Mobil's profits were up 337 percent, Texaco's 154 percent, Chevron's 44 percent, Amoco's 13 percent, and ARCO's 11 percent. Exxon experienced a 4 percent decrease in profits, but showed a strong net income in the fourth quarter, which was 49 percent higher than the same period in 1995. For the year in total, all showed strong profits, including Exxon, whose 1996 income was up 16 percent from that reported in 1995. ARCO announced that 1996 was one of the most successful years in the company's 130-year history. The increase in profits was credited to high crude oil and natural gas prices, as well as to strong margins in refining and marketing operations. Mergers and acquisitions reached $14.5 billion in the first half of 1996, up from $11.5 billion for all of 1995. Among the largest of these moves was Tenneco's $4 billion sale of its pipeline to El Paso Natural Gas Co.; Mobil's merger of its European refining and marketing operations with British Petroleum; and Mobil's $1.4 billion takeover of Australia's Ampolex Ltd.

Natural gas prices fell in the early part of the 1990s, and oil companies spent approximately 10 percent less in 1992 on new well exploration than they had the previous year. U.S. production fell to 9 million barrels per day in 1992, down from 10 million barrels per day in 1987, continuing its slow slide, as more companies pursued international drilling at the expense of U.S.-based exploration. Despite the gains in the industry, U.S. production fell below 7 million barrels per day, a low not seen since the 1950s.

In 1996 production was 6.7 million barrels per day, with 1.4 million barrels per day from Alaska and the remainder from the lower 48. Alaska was seen as the only U.S. state with the possibility of harboring large untapped oil and gas reserves, but new exploration on federally owned lands was forbidden by Congress, motivated by a growing environmental movement. The only real growth sector was offshore, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico. For example, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the Gulf of Mexico Discovery Project for Discovery partners MAPCO and Texaco, a 150-mile offshore Gulf pipeline accessing deepwater production from existing and planned locations.

Environmental concerns also increased the cost of local drilling, further spurring U.S. exploration firms to turn their attention to drilling outside the United States, where regulation was sometimes slack and the possibility of untapped reserves significant. While exploration services underwent shifts in fortune prior to the 1990s, those changes were most often due to economic or political factors, such as the OPEC oil embargo of the mid-1970s, rather than environmental ones. However, The Oil Pollution Liability and Compensation Act of 1990 and the Clean Air Act of 1990 had some direct effect on exploration practices. The latter, among other things, tightened emission standards for offshore drilling activity. Nonetheless, most effects on exploration remained indirect as most new regulation and fines applied to vehicles, oil refineries, ships, and pipeline operations, the costs of which would reach oil and gas companies in general and then trickle down to exploration expenditures. With government rewarding the use of diesel fuel alternatives, more energy was put into natural gas exploration and production than into crude oil.

In the late 1990s, U.S. drilling activity took a major dive due to plummeting world oil prices, but made a remarkable recovery by the end of 1999. Oil drilling in the United States dropped in 1999, with one of the smallest number of total well completions in the modern petroleum era. Operators drilled 18,600 wells in 1999, down from an estimated 23,900 drilled in 1998, the lowest number in six decades. Slack profits in oil and gas production operations accounted for the decline in investment in U.S. exploration and development. Oil prices bottomed out at $11.26 a barrel in February 1998, but rebounded to $25.70 a barrel in December 1999. In 1998 there were a total of 24,884 wells in the United States, an increase of 2,703 from 1995. Of these, 8,720 were completed for oil, 10,711 for gas, and 5,453 were dry holes.

After peaking in 1970, domestic crude oil production fell an average of 1.5 percent per year. In 1997 crude oil production in the United States declined 56,000 barrels a day to an average of 6.4 million barrels per day, down from 6.5 million barrels per day during the same period in 1996. Alaska, which produced 1.3 million barrels per day, accounted for 20 percent of total U.S. production in 1997. The lower 48 states averaged 5.1 million barrels per day. Total natural gas production in 1997 was estimated at 19 trillion cubic feet (Tcf), compared to 18.7 Tcf in 1996.

After 1986, the U.S. petroleum industry shrank as higher-cost companies left the industry and big-budget projects were scrapped. Despite the slow growth, U.S. companies made significant efficiency gains, as the cost of adding reserves (finding costs) has declined. A general reduction in activity combined with more selective drilling, which is often called "prospect high grading," account for this drop. Moreover, technological advances in exploration and drilling made many projects more profitable. Finally, corporate downsizing and industry mergers reduced operating costs by streamlining resources and eliminating redundancies.

The market volatility of the 1990s saw little improvement during the early 2000s. A general strike by workers at Venezuela's national petroleum plant caused the country's production to fall from three million barrels per day to 400,000 barrels per day. Venezuela had provided approximately 14 percent of U.S. imports, and the mayhem in that country caused oil prices to spike in late 2002. On the heels of the strike came the U.S. war against Iraq, which resulted in per-barrel prices jumping briefly to $40 before dropping back to $28 in March 2003. Elevated prices put money back in the pockets of petroleum companies, paving the way for increased exploration activities.

In 2003 global consumption of crude oil stood at 76 to 78 million barrels per day. The demand is expected to increase to 90 to 110 million barrels per day by 2025. Natural gas consumption in 2003 averaged 90 trillion cubic feet per day and is expected to increase to 135 trillion cubic feet per day by 2025.

In 2003, U.S. companies operated 4,194 offshore platforms. In 1984, 84 percent of acreage awarded exploration privileges was onshore, with 3 percent onshore with offshore extensions, and 22 percent offshore. By 2002 offshore exploration awards had grown to 53 percent, and onshore awards had fallen to 42 percent. The increase in offshore exploration did not go unnoticed or uncontested by environmental groups. For example, during 2002 Florida protested exploration releases off its coast, resulting in the federal government buying the leasing rights from oil companies to compensate them for the potential loss of oil. Likewise, California waged a battle to keep exploration leases in water north of Los Angeles from being renewed by the federal government.

Exploration is expected to be driven by new technology that will allow deeper wells, and in offshore locations, in deeper waters. While natural gas exploration and drilling will be focused inland, petroleum exploration is shifting toward more offshore locations.

The World Oil & Gas Forecast study, published by industry analysts Douglas-Westwood Ltd. and compiled from information gathered from the Energyfiles database, released its findings of the long-term projection for the offshore oil and gas industry. Offshore oil and gas production was forecast to grow to 55 billion barrels per day by 2015. Therefore, expenditures stand at some $111 billion per year, with $1.44 trillion projected over the next decade.

Almost 25 percent of offshore oil produced will come from deep water areas in 2015, compared to only 10 percent in 2004. Most importantly, following 2010 all global offshore oil production growth will arise from deep waters, compensating for declining output from shallow waters. Dr. Michael R. Smith, technical director of the Energyfiles database, noted that "in recent years offshore oil and gas production growth has been constant and rapid." Therefore, offshore production is expected to climb to 27 million barrels of oil per day, up to 33 million barrels per day by 2015.

Oil prices were notoriously volatile in the early 2000s, with 2005 marking new record prices in many global benchmarks, and that trend continued through 2007 with the price of oil approaching $100 per barrel.

Current Conditions

According to The World Oil & Gas Forecast, 180 wells were drilled in U.S. Gulf waters in 2010, projected to increase by 27.8 percent to 230 new wells. The majority of U.S. onshore drilling will take place in Texas, increasing drilling activity by more than 2,847 more wells drilled compared to 2010. Following years of gas drilling taking center stage, the number of rigs drilling for oil was expected to surpass that of gas drilling, driven by rising oil prices and dormant natural gas prices. The majority of onshore U.S. drilling was forecast to be centered in Texas in 2011, increasing 2,847 more wells compared to 2010.

As oil prices rise, majors ExxonMobile, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Total of France announced capital investments that totaled $128.54 billion for 2011, an increase over $117.35 billion in 2010 and over the $127 billion record reported in 2008. Theepan Jothilingam of Morgan Stanley told the Financial Times that 2011 will end as "a banner year for offshore exploration activity," however, he warned of possible "increased maintenance costs and downtime" the direct result of BP's oil spill during 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.

Industry Leaders

The Financial Times reported that the petroleum industry was transformed by what it called a new order of mega-majors. Low oil prices and a desire to cut costs enticed petroleum corporations to increase their merger activity in the late 1990s. The largest industry consolidations occurred between BP and Amoco, Exxon and Mobil, and Total and PetroFina. In addition, on April 1, 1999, BP Amoco agreed to purchase Arco. Chevron continued the trend in the early 2000s by acquiring Texaco in 2001 and Unocal in 2005.

Exxon's merger with Mobil, completed in the third quarter of 1999, created the world's largest company, with 2006 revenues of $337.6 billion. The company has 55.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11.8 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves. The consolidation also gave the company key access to some of the world's most lucrative oil basins, including offshore West Africa and the Caspian Sea, as well as a strong position in natural gas markets in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. Exxon Mobile Corporation reported revenues of $477.3 billion in 2008, falling to $310.5 billion in 2009 with a workforce of 80,700 workers. As of 2009 the company had 23 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves, including holdings in oil sands through Imperial Oil.

Smaller companies were also gaining ground in the development of U.S. oil and gas resources. The share of oil and gas production from non-majors, who are also known as "independents," increased from 40 percent of total U.S. production in the late 1980s to nearly 50 percent in 1996. Non-majors accounted for 60 percent of total U.S. production of natural gas from U.S. offshore areas in 1996. Nonmajor companies tended to drill smaller fields that had faster depletion rates than those of the majors. Like the majors, however, the smaller companies were able to reduce their finding costs to levels equivalent to the majors'.


Corporate mergers did not bode well for the job market in oil and gas exploration. However, streamlining did not affect skilled exploration workers. With prospects beckoning overseas, the demand for technical experts was expected to rise.

Oil and gas exploration teams require a variety of subject expertise. Geophysicists, who apply the principles of physics to the science of geology, and geologists, who study the formation of the earth, evaluate incoming data from seismic vessels and onshore data collection. Then they use sophisticated computer systems to interpret the data and make recommendations for when and where to drill. Engineers are needed to design oil and gas rigs and to oversee their use on site. Oil rig workers, who may live for weeks at a time on offshore rigs, are needed to operate the equipment. The oil companies themselves employ executive and clerical staff on the corporate level, but in the wake of increased cutbacks in the 1990s, these jobs were increasingly difficult to obtain. Companies were relying more and more on contract or freelance workers instead of large, permanent staffs.

America and the World

The U.S. oil and gas industry is inextricably linked to the world industry. Because decisions about exploration are linked to the proven reserves of oil and gas available, it is important to note that more than 75 percent of proven oil reserves are controlled by OPEC, although the vast majority of oil is consumed by non-OPEC nations, giving OPEC a tremendous influence on the world oil and gas market.

U.S. oil exploration, and that of other non-OPEC countries, has slowed in contrast to OPEC exploration. Meanwhile, the major U.S.-based petroleum companies became increasingly involved in foreign exploration. In the early 1990s, money allocated to foreign exploration and development was over 50 percent of all exploration spending, compared to 27 percent in the mid-1980s. In 1996 Exxon spent twice as much on foreign exploration as for domestic. Mobil Co. spent $830 million on domestic exploration and $1.8 billion on overseas. In addition to the many reasons for decreasing domestic exploration mentioned earlier, world political and economic developments of the 1990s made it more feasible and profitable to increase U.S. investment in foreign exploration. Along with maintaining an already strong presence in the Mexican and Latin American markets, U.S. companies increased investments in other areas of the world.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union provided increased opportunities for investment in that area's oil reserves. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) saw the rise of joint exploration and drilling ventures, especially between U.S. and Russian companies. The Caspian Sea, which borders Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, is one of the world's hottest new investment zones, with estimates of oil reserves ranging from 30 billion barrels to 200 billion barrels, according to Steve LeVine of The New York Times. Another area of increasing U.S. investment is Southeast Asia, where U.S. exploration spending grew the most from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. The economies of Asian countries are increasingly industrialized in, and many governments in Asia, including China and Vietnam, actively courted foreign investment and participation in local drilling by outside companies.

However, U.S. companies do not have a free rein to invest anywhere they choose. Politics overrules economics in petroleum-rich countries whose governments have offended the United States. Sanctions continue to Iran and Libya, putting U.S. companies at a disadvantage with their foreign competitors. U.S. companies must also adhere to relatively stringent environmental and labor codes compared to their competitors.

Research and Technology

Fortune magazine reported the dramatic strides in oil exploration technology. In 1965 drillers could only operate in water up to 300 feet deep. By the late 1990s, Chevron was leasing blocks of land in the Gulf of Mexico 9,000 feet underwater. Some experts said that drilling in 10,000 feet was imminent. Chevron and other companies developed a technique called subsea mud-lift drilling, which enabled drillers to leave residue on the ocean floor instead of sucking it up through a pipe. This method could save drillers $5 million to $10 million per well.

New tools like three-dimensional seismic analysis allow oil companies to bounce sound waves off oil-bearing deposits and translate the patterns into 3-D models. Drilling rigs that use the technique find productive wells more than 70 percent of the time, compared to a 40 percent success rate with conventional seismic analysis, according to Fortune. In addition, producers can extract more oil from existing wells. Oil & Gas Journal reported a new fracturing technique that allowed gas drillers to stimulate existing wells rather than drill new ones. Major U.S. producers could pump as much as 50 percent of the oil from a given pool, compared to a worldwide average of less than 35 percent.

As the large oil companies cut back on domestic exploration through the 1990s, it became even more important to make as certain as possible the profitability of those explorations that were undertaken. Technology for assessing the shape of underground earth formations and oil and gas deposits was introduced as early as 1927 by Schlumberger Ltd., with nearly $19.23 billion in 2006 revenue. Schlumberger's Maxis service, which assesses the characteristics of earth around a well, was introduced in the early 1990s. At a time when profits were flat and downsizing common, Schlumberger doubled its jobs in 1992, testament to the industry's ever-increasing reliance on high technology.

But Maxis was only one of many high-technology innovations that reduced oil exploration costs and more than halved finding costs for natural gas in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Other innovations included horizontal drilling, three-dimensional seismography, and improvements in drilling in light sands. The majority of innovation was in offshore drilling, which required much technological innovation in both the exploration and drilling stages. The Machar project in the North Sea used both advanced technology and an innovative system to tap a difficult oil well. Discovered in 1972 and estimated to hold 55 million barrels of recoverable oil, the reservoir was too complex to confidently evaluate with the technology of the day and considered too marginal economically. In 1994 British Petroleum enlisted what became the Turnkey Additional Production (TAP) alliance, which drew together contractors to supply the best possible solutions, one of them being Schlumberger Integrated Project Management (IPM), managing well engineering and well construction. All parties participated in risk and reward, so all focused on reducing risk, maximizing efficiency, and maximizing return. Decisions were made rapidly by those nearest the action, instead of relying on a chain of management. The results were quick and impressive as appraisal oil flowed in just 19 weeks instead of the usual one to two years typical when using the conventional approach. At the end of the 25-month project, there had been no work loss due to accidents, no leaks or spills, and an overall efficiency 7 percent above plan.

Although invented in the 1960s, three-dimensional seismography did not become viable until the 1980s with advances in the computer and acoustical industries. Ships equipped with two cables each carrying two source arrays, or "seismic streamers," cruise areas of suspected undersea oil and gas deposits. The streamers give off electric or air detonations, whose waves are reflected off underwater rock formations below the level of the sea floor. Data is then processed onshore and the undersea floor mapped. Although ships covered much terrain, it could take as much as a year and a half to interpret the data gained from 100 square miles. Three-dimensional seismography was impractical land because of the presence of aboveground structures. Instead, trucks called "thumpers" sent sonic waves through the ground by hammering the earth at specific sites and the wave data was then collected and interpreted.

Data interpretation is highly technical and involved. It uses excessive amounts of computer storage space plus specialized computer software that sorts and analyzes the streams of incoming data. However, advances in proprietary hardware and software were hastened the process.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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