Following three straight years of production declines after the Macondo well blowout, this year likely will be the first for growth in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) since 2009, but it certainly won’t be the last, according to Raymond James & Associates Inc.

Production in the offshore will be up this year from the past few years, then be flat in 2014 and 2015, but “there is a very meaningful amount of volumes on deck for startup in the second half of the decade,” said analyst Pavel Molchanov and research associate David Meats.

“In fact, based on the current schedule of major project startups, we expect the Gulf of Mexico to grow faster (in relative terms) through 2020 than the U.S. onshore arena — a forecast that will surely seem counter intuitive for many energy investors who are saturated with constant news flow from shale plays,” wrote Molchanov (see related story).

“To be sure, this is a back-end-loaded growth curve, and there are plenty of heightened risks (not least of which is the regulatory environment), but the Gulf of Mexico’s role in the domestic oil production surge (and hence the path toward oil independence) should not be overlooked.”

The GOM is “arguably the Rodney Dangerfield of the U.S. oil industry; these days, it just can’t get any respect. With just about everyone talking about the nation’s path toward oil independence, shale plays are what dominate the headlines when it comes to domestic oil production.”

The Raymond James analyst isn’t disputing the facts: the dominant growth driver should remain the surge in onshore unconventional volumes from many of the big-name plays. However, “the Gulf of Mexico should not be ignored, and with memories of the Macondo oil spill starting to fade into the mists of time, the Gulf of Mexico should become an increasingly meaningful contributor to supply in the second half of this decade.”

Through 2020, in fact, relative GOM oil output should gain faster than in the onshore. Based on Raymond James projections for domestic onshore supplies through 2020 and offshore supplies through 2015, as well as extrapolations from data compiled by Rystad Energy, onshore volumes make up 73% of future supply growth, said the analyst.

“But keep in mind, onshore volumes comprise the bulk of existing production — 80% in 2012, to be exact — so, if anything, their future contribution is actually somewhat of an underweight. In other words, on a relative basis, offshore volumes would actually grow faster through 2020, an average of 8.3% per year in the Gulf of Mexico, as compared to 6.1% onshore. How is that for some unconventional wisdom?”

Because of the GOM’s “project-centric nature,” a compound annual growth rate of 8.3% through 2020 “is not a linear progression” but instead “very lumpy.” This year should see a “strong rebound,” up by about 150 boe/d, followed by two years of flat production and then another growth spurt in 2016.

The data “needs to be taken with a grain of salt, not because we expect another Macondo disaster, but because even before Macondo, Gulf of Mexico projects tended to get pushed out.” BP’s Thunder Horse project startup is a good example, he said. Its ramp up was delayed for three years. “Bottom line, Rystad’s analysis shows a highly back-end-loaded growth curve, and if anything, our bias would be even more back- end-loaded.”

Operators that will drive GOM growth “with rare exceptions” are the large caps, such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell plc, which together accounted for about 43% of GOM output in 2012, said Molchanov.

“Beyond the obvious fact that neither is a U.S.-based company, we think a more important point to underscore is that this degree of concentration does not exist in virtually any of the domestic shale plays,” he said. “Based on current project startup timelines, essentially the same players would remain dominant in the Gulf of Mexico through 2020, with Shell set to overtake BP as the Gulf of Mexico’s top producer in 2016.”

The deepwater has drawn the most attention in the past decade, and for good reason. The Raymond James team expects the Miocene trend to account “for at least two-thirds of the cumulative additions” in GOM output between now and 2020. The major producing fields include Chevron Corp.-operated Tahiti, which has been producing since 2009, and Anadarko Petroleum Corp.-operated Caesar Tonga, which ramped up last year. “Nonproducing discoveries include Anadarko-operated Heidelberg (startup expected in 2016) and Noble-operated Gunflint.”

Also keep an eye on the emerging Lower Tertiary Trend, which is generally deeper and more complex geologically. There’s little data to yet report from the test wells, said Molchanov. “If the play takes off as the industry hopes, this would create upside to Gulf of Mexico production toward the end of the decade, offsetting some of the inevitable delays in Miocene projects.”

Last week an appraisal well in the Lower Tertiary by co-operators ConocoPhillips and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. indicated promising results, with one analyst estimating the Walker Ridge blocks may hold 500 million to 1 billion boe of reserves (see related story)

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