THE oil and gas industry slump triggered by the coronavirus crisis may shatter hopes that frontier areas such as the wilds west of Scotland could support a new generation of activity in the North Sea.

However, some specialists remain confident that the appeal of the relatively under-explored West of Shetland region will not be tarnished irreversibly.

“West of Shetland was seen as a world standard opportunity and that’s not gone away,” said Mike Tholen of industry body Oil & Gas UK.

Experts reckon there are billions of barrels still to be recovered from the area, which stood out as a beacon of hope amid the deep downturn from 2014 to 2018.

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While firms slashed spending in well-worked areas of the North Sea from 2014 to 2018, a range of giants including BP, Shell and Total invested heavily in developing giant fields West of Shetland such as Clair Ridge.

A Surrey-based minnow, Hurricane Energy, stoked massive excitement about the potential of the area after making finds that looked hugely promising in a layer of granite that had largely been ignored.

Amid a clamour for exploration licences West of Shetland the regulator encouraged firms to investigate the potential of the Rockall Basin area off North West Scotland.

The turmoil caused by the coronavirus and the ensuing slump in energy prices has probably made it more important than ever that the dream of frontier areas being opened up is realised.

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It may kill off hopes that lots of relatively small finds that have been left undeveloped in the North Sea could be brought into production. These were highlighted in the Maximising Economic Recovery strategy developed by the regulator in response to the last downturn.

Mr Tholen said: “At low commodity prices when cash is short as well some of the marginal fields will not get developed, that is quite simply the case, or they will be left in the cupboard to see what another day may bring.”

On the Rockall Basin, he noted: “Some things are going to be on the let’s think hard about this list.”

It could be harder than ever to generate interest in areas where there is limited production infrastructure in place amid the drive to achieve net zero in terms of carbon emissions.

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Specialists at Wood Mackenzie reckon there will be a focus on advantaged barrels, in particular where existing infrastructure can be utilised.

The energy consultancy’s Malcolm Forbes-Cable said: “ I suspect that if there were to be a line drawn in the sand in terms of exploration I think you would continue to explore the current basins I’d be fairly surprised if the government opened up new areas.”

He added: “I think the idea of starting in new areas oil and gas exploration it just wouldn’t go down too well.”

The appeal of West of Shetland may have diminished in some people’s eyes even before the market tanked this year.

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Hurricane Energy suffered setbacks last year and recently slashed estimates of the size of finds it has made.

Siccar Point Energy had drilling disappointments on big prospects in the area. But while people may be cautious for some time it is reckoned the size of the potential prize West of Shetland means the area is likely to attract renewed interest in the longer term.

Oil and gas industry champions are sure that hydrocarbons will have to remain part of the energy mix for decades.The most obvious area in UK waters in which to make discoveries that would be big enough to justify the cost involved in developing them is West of Shetland.

Huge undeveloped fields such as Rosebank could become attractive if commercial conditions change. Technological advances could help improve the economics of fields.

Lucy King at Wood Mackenzie thinks Hurricane’s problems are specific to the geological formation it has been targeting rather than the wider area.

“There are big projects to develop there and it is an area where you could see further exploration looking out,” she said.

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The infrastructure put in place in the last decade to support developments such as Clair Ridge could be used to develop other finds.

“There is some pretty difficult stuff out there but even if you think of the Greater Clair area there are billions of barrels still to be recovered, that if we get the right plans can be recovered in an environmentally responsible way,” said Oil & Gas UK’s Mr Tholen.

“The Greater Clair area has still got a huge prospectivity.”

BP started production from the Clair Ridge development with Shell and US giants Chevron and ConocoPhillips in 2018.

Total brought the Laggan-Tormore fields West of Shetland onstream in 2016.