Automation Suppliers Ride Out Low Oil Prices

May 11, 2015
Lower attendance at OTC this year reflected the hurt that the oil and gas industry is feeling right now. But companies that can wait it out are taking the opportunity to optimize production and get ready for an upturn.

The 47th Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston last week was for the most part a reflection on the state of the industry. Business might not be looking as good as it was last year or even the year before, but it sure as heck is nothing to sneeze at. It’s still a mammoth show with plenty of traffic—just like the oil and gas industry itself.

OTC attendance hit 94,700 this year. That’s almost 13 percent off last year’s mark and down almost 10 percent from 2013. But last year’s attendance of 108,300 was an all-time high, and this year’s number is still the sixth largest in OTC’s history.

The perspective that exhibitors had on that attendance was largely a reflection of their history with the oil and gas industry as well as the show. Emerson Process Management, for example, as a regular exhibitor at OTC, saw a perceptible drop in traffic this year. While new exhibitors like safety supplier HIMA were thrilled with the amount of people coming by the booth.

Continuing low oil prices are affecting the upstream end of the industry, particularly in shale and other unconventional oil and gas. “It’s a challenging year,” commented David Holmes, PR manager for Emerson Process Management.

Those oil companies already committed to rig projects are continuing to build out for the most part, but new projects are not being started as readily, Holmes said. “And a lot in unconventional oil has slowed down. People are waiting for the price to come back. There was more wildcatting when the price was at $100/barrel. Now they’re not as willing to pay overtime. People are being more judicious.”

But keep in mind that—just like the aisles of OTC were still difficult to pass through because of the hordes of people—the oil industry is still producing a significant amount of product despite lower prices. “94 million barrels/day is taken out of the earth still today,” noted Patrick Albos, president of the oil and gas segment for Schneider Electric. “It’s still a very big market.”

Meanwhile, midstream processing is not much affected by the oil prices, and refineries and chemical plants actually benefit. That doesn’t mean downstream oil has not been affected by the changing landscape. “They’re operating differently because of tight oil, more unconventionals,” Holmes said. “They have to be more nimble because what they receive can vary more.”

But automation suppliers that are well diversified across a number of industries are much more able to wait out a temporary downturn in oil prices and projects. “Certainly, for the divisions that are solely oil and gas, the dip has not been positive,” said Chris Nelson, business development manager for process, oil and gas at Parker Hannifin. But he also noted that his company is “pretty well diversified.”

While Parker Hannifin is still getting inquiries from customers, “a lot of what we’re seeing is rebuilds,” said Lou Lambruschi, marketing communications and e-business manager. He sees the slowdown as a good opportunity to improve existing equipment.

Looking to the future

Although business in upstream oil and gas has slowed, companies that are able to invest in technology right now will be well positioned for the upturn, said Jerry Hines, oil and gas manager for National Instruments. A lot of focus is on fixing the oil price equation by optimizing operations, Schneider Electric’s Albos agreed.

“It’s all about collaboration, early engagement, cost efficiency through use of technology,” said Tom Teipner, vice president of North America offshore for Schlumberger. “But that’s what’s going to enable these somewhat marginally economic prospects to continue to be developed as we go forward.”

Anybody’s guess about when oil prices will move back up is mostly that—a guess. Nobody really expects the lower prices to rise quickly. “This transformation will last longer and be deeper than ever before,” Albos said.

But it’s also certainly seen as a temporary downturn. “It’s just a rough spot right now,” Lambruschi said.

The decision by OPEC to flood the market rather than pull back on production is driven primarily by Saudi Arabia. Speculation is that it’s Saudi Arabia’s intent to drive prices down to squeeze out U.S. oil production—particularly the unconventional players that cannot survive the low prices as well—and keep the U.S. dependent on Saudi oil.

As oil prices continue to hover around $50/barrel, some companies will not survive. “It’s difficult for some companies to be profitable,” Hines said. “If they don’t have the resources to invest, they will be acquired or go out of business.”

But many of NI’s customers are optimistic, Hines added, about oil prices being more stabilized and sustainable when they come back up. “It’s been a rollercoaster the last five to six years,” he said, adding that oil producers will need to learn how to operate more efficiently. “The whole run-it-until-it-breaks mentality is going to have to be reevaluated.”

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