Natural gas and oil explorers discovered up to 13 billion boe worldwide in 2019, the most volumes since 2015, with most in deepwater and three-quarters weighted to gas.

According to Rystad Energy, total gas and oil volumes unearthed by exploration and production (E&P) operators last year was about 12.2 billion boe. Westwood Global Energy Group tallied the figure at around 13 billion boe.

“Last year we recorded 26 discoveries of more than 100 million boe, with offshore regions dominating the list of new oil and gas deposits,” said Rystad researchers.

ExxonMobil Corp. led the way and improved Guyana’s success story from 2018, with four discoveries offshore in the Stabroek Block. Tullow Oil’s Jethro and Joe exploration wells west of Stabroek also established the presence of a working petroleum system.

Guyana discoveries hold recoverable resources estimated at around 1.8 billion boe.

“ExxonMobil can be declared explorer of the year for a second year in a row thanks to its ongoing efforts and results in Guyana, along with significant investments in Cyprus,” said Rystad’s Palzor Shenga, senior upstream analyst. “The supermajor was exceptional, both in terms of discovered volumes and value creation from exploration.”

ExxonMobil discovered about 1.07 billion boe net in additional resources last year, with estimated value creation from the volumes of around $2.7 billion, largely driven by the continued success in Guyana.

Off the coast of Mauritania, BP plc’s Orca gas field was not only the largest single discovery, but also the deepest water find of 2019, estimated by Rystad to hold about 1.3 billion boe of recoverable resources.

Recent gas discoveries in the Mauritania region are said to be enough to support plans to build an additional liquefied natural gas hub in the Bir Allah area.

In Russia, state-owned Gazprom announced two discoveries in the Kara Sea, Dinkov and Nyarmeyskoye. Gazprom’s discoveries last year are estimated to hold combined recoverable resources of around 1.5 billion boe, with Dinkov ranked as the second-largest find worldwide in 2019.

Other key offshore discoveries in 2019 include Total SA’s Brulpadda in South Africa, ExxonMobil’s Glaucus in Cyprus, the Glengorm discovery in the UK by China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), and Equinor ASA’s Sputnik in the Norwegian sector of the Barents Sea.

Still, many of 2019’s high-impact wells turned out to be duds, Shenga noted.

“Although the discovered volumes for 2019 surpassed the preceding year, it was a disappointing year for high-profile wells as many prospects with significant estimated pre-drill resources failed to deliver. Over 10 billion boe of estimated pre-drill volumes were at stake in wells that failed to encounter hydrocarbons.”

Hess Corp., at No. 2, and CNOOC, in third place, followed ExxonMobil as top explorers last year in terms of value creation from new discoveries, each benefiting from their partnership with ExxonMobil in Stabroek.

New York City-based Hess added about $2 billion in value from total discoveries in 2019, while CNOOC created around $1.8 billion in value. France’s Total was at No. 4 with about $873 million in value creation from its E&P activities, “largely driven by the play-opening success with the Brulpadda find in South Africa,” said Shenga.

No ‘Extinction Rebellion’

While the “energy transition and extinction rebellion” may have stimulated reflection in many E&P boardrooms last year, the impact on exploratory drilling was not apparent, according to Westwood’s Keith Myers, president of research.

The global high impact well count in 2019 was 91 wells, 36% higher than in 2018, while drilling spend was flat at $3.5 billion as average well costs fell.

“Discovered commercial volume was the highest since 2015 at around 13 billion boe from the 27 high impact discoveries announced so far,” said Myers, with the commercial success rate at a 10-year high of 32%. The level of activity “looks likely to be sustained through 2020.”

About three-quarters (77%) of the discoveries last year were weighted to natural gas, with seven of the Top 10 gas finds in Russia, which had two, followed by Iran, Mauritania, Senegal, Indonesia and Cyprus. The two biggest oil-weighted discoveries were in the Stabroek Block, “which at 6 billion bbl and counting is one of the most prolific oil licenses ever issued,” Myers said.

The oil volumes discovered in Guyana already are “far more than the tiny economy...can handle and the pace may have to slow in 2020 if Guyana is to cope. There is still much to learn about both the plumbing of the petroleum system and the robustness of the political system; expect more surprises.”

The Maka Central discovery operated by Apache Corp. announced earlier this month appears to be the first commercial discovery outside of Stabroek, which would extend the play into neighbouring Suriname.

In Mexico, meanwhile, five high impact exploration wells completed by international oil companies last year failed to deliver one commercial discovery, with one well still being drilled, according to Westwood.

This year, it may become clearer whether Mexico “will deliver the bounty” from international oil companies (IOC). There are “at least 10 wells operated by seven different IOCs testing over 2.5 billion bbl of unrisked prospective volume in a range of frontier and emerging plays,” Myers said.

The geology in Mexico is complex and mixed results should be expected.

“Based on current plans it looks like high impact drilling could be at a similar level in 2020 but with shift of focus to North and South America,” Myers said.

Industry drilling plans this year are forecast to be 70% weighted to oil.

“While recognizing that the industry has had a habit of finding gas when looking for oil it doesn’t seem the appetite for finding oil is diminishing,” Myers said. Total, Equinor, Royal Dutch Shell plc and Eni SpA are slated to be the most active explorers, each participating in 14 or more high impact wells.

“While there has been much talk about the energy transition in 2019,” said Myers, “there is little sign of its impact on exploration plans for 2020.”