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Know your JOA: top 10 tips for anxious partners in upstream oil and gas joint ventures

A year dominated by the story of low oil prices is drawing to a close amid predictions that the pressures on upstream oil and gas companies’ financial positions may well intensify through 2016.  For those who may be concerned about the financial health of their joint venture partners, we offer below a quick guide to taking stock of where you stand under your Joint Operating Agreements (JOAs) to put you in the best position to deal with any emerging problems.

Know what the JOA says about default

Most JOAs contain an unqualified and absolute obligation on a party to pay all cash calls, pre-funding and invoice requests.  But check if a partner is in trouble, it may try to dispute the validity of payment obligations – most JOAs depend on a ‘pay now argue later’ formulation – but it’s worth checking.

If the operator is in trouble

Check that the JOA allows a non-operator to issue a default notice and ask for all joint account statements. The JOA should require the operator to provide periodic information on funding the joint account to evidence that non-operators and the operator are funding their participating shares.

The operator is not responsible for a shortfall

Do not suppose the operator’s functions extend to funding any default – they will almost certainly not.  The non-defaulting parties will be liable for the defaulting party’s share in proportion to their respective shares and non-payment of the additional share will be a default event itself.  The operator may be able to borrow funds instead – this may be a more attractive means of funding any immediate work commitments, so talk to the operator.

Know the short-term remedies

The defaulting party will cease to have voting rights – and a non-defaulting party’s rights at OPCOM will increase proportionately.  Other entitlements will be lost as well: the right to information, the right to transfer an interest or withdraw.  Again, check the JOA.  The prohibition on transfer should be at the non-defaulting party’s discretion – there may be a willing buyer and the advantage of a quick sale.

What happens to the petroleum?

Rights over petroleum entitlements will be lost as well. Check what the operator’s obligations are – usually to sell the defaulting party’s petroleum on the best terms available to offset against the shortfall.  Non-defaulting parties will want transparency on this and no sweetheart deals with the operator’s affiliates.

What happens next?

Here’s where JOAs differ in approach, so it’s important to know the process. Options include compulsory withdrawal, interest sales, mortgage security enforcement and forfeiture. The process for enforcing additional remedies will be spelt out in the JOA.  Timing, and the role and exposure of the non-defaulting parties will differ depending on the form of the sequestration sanction.

Mortgage security enforcement

This avoids the uncertainties with forfeiture and is potentially attractive.  The non-defaulting parties have a secured interest – and can rank ahead of unsecured creditors.  But it can be problematic in some respects, multiple charges need to be registered and commercial lenders to the defaulting party may have some priority.

Interest sales … what needs to be passed over

Know what deductions can be made from the sale price beyond the amount in default. It is easy to justify all associated costs of the sale, marketing, legal and so on.  However, any deduction that cannot be easily justified (such as fixed percentage deduction) may look like a penalty – and that can be problematic.

A slippery slope

Forfeiture – i.e. distribution of the defaulting party’s interest to the others.  Fine in principle, but it only works if all the non-defaulting parties are willing to assume an additional burden.  If others won’t do this, the situation can rapidly worsen – with other parties withdrawing and the handback or surrender of the concession.  This can be off-putting to buyers – have the sellers got good title?

The ultimate sanction … perhaps not

Forfeiture comes with baggage – how effective is it?  Not commercially justifiable – so perhaps a penalty?  Or an unfair preference over unsecured creditors, such that a private contract defeats the law of insolvency?  Not straightforward and plenty of scope for mischief by those in default.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised above, please do not hesitate to get in touch with the author or any of your other regular contacts in the Dentons oil and gas team.

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Know your JOA: top 10 tips for anxious partners in upstream oil and gas joint ventures

Oil Price Crash (1): Options for North Sea oil and gas: shut-ins and taxation relief

Companies involved in oil and gas activities globally are tightening their belts. The decline in the price of Brent crude oil (spot sales) from $115 in June 2014 to less than $50 per barrel in just over six months represents a loss in value of over 60%, leading to a reduction in profits (and for some, no profit at all). Regardless of the macroeconomic effects for GDPs, the economics presently look stark.

Some recent headlines demonstrating the devastating effect of the rapid oil price decline:

  • mega mergers and redundancies in the oilfield service sector;
  • the announcements by BP, Talisman and ConocoPhillips of job losses in their North Sea workforces and other operators looking to change the typical “2 weeks on, 3 weeks off” rotation pattern;
  • projects put on hold in Qatar and the Canadian oil sands, (Russia’s Shtokman project and US shale developments are also feeling the pinch);
  • Shell announced last week it will curtail $15bn of investment over the next three years; and
  • across the board rate cuts for North Sea contractors have been implemented since January.

Difficult times for the North Sea

All this comes at what was already a difficult time for the North Sea industry. It is worth noting that some companies were exiting the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) even before the price crash and that much of the investment, and growth in the UKCS is expected to be in more expensive “frontier” areas. But now, according to a survey of forecasters conducted by The Independent, the oil price is almost at a point that every barrel produced in the North Sea would be unprofitable. There have been calls for a 50% drop in taxes applicable to the North Sea, as 100 (out of around 300) fields were said to be in danger of being shut in.

Weathering a storm

A North Sea platform weathering a storm

Faced with such a drop in the price of their product, operators of producing fields have four choices: (i) sit tight and hope prices bounce back quickly and sharply, (ii) cut costs and/or investment, (iii) shut in production or (iv) lobby the Government to boost their net revenue by changing the fiscal position. We’ve seen some examples of option (ii) already, as noted above. Companies opting for option (i) may wish to consider overlifting or underlifting their share, within the confines of joint venture arrangements, to ease immediate cashflow worries (and see our previous article for issues to consider dealing companies potentially in distress), or gambling on a return to higher prices, respectively. Here we consider options (iii) and (iv) in more detail.

Shutting up shop

Operators of producing fields might consider shutting in production (i.e. stopping production and shutting wells), either for a temporary period until the oil price rises back to a profitable level or permanently with a view to beginning decommissioning. Below, we take a look at some of the practical and legal consequences.

Recommissioning facilities after a temporary shut-in can be a costly and lengthy process. This can be prohibitive, leading to remaining reserves being left in the ground. According to reports it took BP’s Rhum field (temporarily shut in between November 2010 and October 2014) a year to recommence production due to technical delays after receiving approval from DECC.

Those who choose to shut in production with a view to decommissioning must undertake decommissioning activities in accordance with pre-approved programmes. Early field decommissioning can also result in the premature decommissioning of ageing infrastructure which could otherwise be used by newer fields.

Decommissioning in operation

But before an operator can take steps to shut-in production, it must follow a process and obtain certain approvals (which may or may not be forthcoming). Prior to engaging with Government, the operator must obtain approval from its other joint venture parties in accordance with the voting arrangements in the relevant joint operating agreement.  If the green light is given, the operator will need to seek approval in accordance with the law and licence conditions.

Secretary of State blessing

DECC regulates producers operating in the UKCS through the Petroleum Act 1998, as well as the licence conditions in offshore exploration and production licences granted to companies wishing to explore and produce oil or gas in the UKCS. These conditions are drawn from “model clauses” set out in secondary legislation. The model clauses used vary depending on when a licence is granted. But a general principle applying across model clauses for all licences (regardless of when the licence was granted) is that the Secretary of State for  Energy and Climate Change’s (the Secretary of State) consent or approval is required for certain key steps. Under the licence conditions, a licensee cannot abandon any well, nor may it decommission any assets, without the Secretary of State’s consent. Therefore any decision to shut-in a well governed by a UKCS licence requires the Secretary of State’s blessing.

The Secretary of State has the power to revoke a licence (in respect of one or all licensees) on a failure to comply with licence conditions and may direct at the time of revocation that any well drilled is left in good order and fit for further working; thus providing the possibility of future production.

MER UK

The results of prematurely shutting in production seem diametrically opposed to the Government’s aims of maximising economic recovery from the North Sea resource (MER UK) (in line with the proposals set out in the Wood Review). Prior to the coming into force of the Infrastructure Bill, there is no legal requirement for the Government to take MER UK into account when exercising its licensing and decommissioning functions. It is bound to be a factor in decision-making on any request for Secretary of State consent. The Infrastructure Bill, when in force, will also place obligations on producers (see our previous blog) to act in accordance with the Government’s MER UK strategies. 

Death and taxes

There may be nothing more certain than death and taxes, but taxes applying to the UKCS have been far from certain. The surprise increase in the Supplementary Charge from 20% to 32% in 2011 (due to the high oil price) serves as a reminder to the industry of the temptation to shock (but without awe).  Analysts and industry experts believe that what is needed is (i) a quick fix reduction on tax rates to show UK plc supports the North Sea industry (and help those still making a profit) and (ii) a comprehensive review of the tax system in place to reduce complexity.

Head of Oil and Gas UK (OGUK), Malcolm Webb, would like to see “30% as the top tax rate”, whilst “some companies are paying 80% as the highest rate on fields in the North Sea.” How is it that some companies are paying 80% in tax? The Government currently operates three oil and gas tax regimes, which overlap with each other, as follows:

First steps for improving fiscal competitiveness

The Government did respond to the oil price change in December 2014 announcing various reliefs, including cutting the Supplementary Charge from 32% to 30%, extending the ring-fence expenditure supplement for offshore oil and gas activities for four more years as well as plans for new “cluster” allowances. The industry commended these steps, but they were felt not to go far enough. In addition, these reliefs may be more helpful for those engaging in exploration in newer frontier areas than for those producing from the older fields with marginal economics. With the oil price dropping lower (and the potential for sub-$40 Brent crude), in mid-January, Sir Ian Wood, whose Review recommended a wholesale review of the tax structure to encourage investment in the interests of “MER UK”, advocated lowering the Supplementary Charge within the next few weeks by at least 10%, i.e. back to 20%.  Malcolm Webb’s view is that the December “measures can only be seen as the first steps towards improving the overall fiscal competitiveness of the UK North Sea. We will certainly need further reductions in the overall rate of tax to ensure the long-term future of the industry”.

Budget

What else does the 2015 Budget have in store?

Part of the problem is that the UK operates a licensing regime for exploration and development activities, and the Government obtains revenues from the UK’s natural resources through imposing taxes. As a result every response from the Government to market conditions, or attempt to stimulate activity, takes the form of legislation that applies to everyone and tends to hang around. Other jurisdictions, which operate production sharing regimes, have the luxury of adapting production sharing formulas (often set out in contract) to reflect the level of exploration risk for a particular concession or block, with regard to factors such as geographical location and drilling depth, by allowing the parties’ shares to increase or decrease as aggregate production increases. Those operating in such regimes may also benefit from stabilised taxation for a certain period of time (contributing to the attractiveness of a jurisdiction for investment).

OGA to the rescue?

Whilst the UK has tried to import some mechanisms into the tax system to allow for the recognition of risk in exploration, some commentators feel the UK now fields a convoluted and newcomer-unfriendly fiscal system. As the competition hots up between countries to provide home for petrodollar investments, this provides an opportune time to review the tax system for the North Sea. It seems that the new Oil and Gas Authority is getting cracking undertaking a review of measures which could be taken to relieve the existing crisis.

 

 

 

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Oil Price Crash (1): Options for North Sea oil and gas: shut-ins and taxation relief