LONDON Oil discoveries in 2015 fell to their lowest since 1952 as energy companies slashed exploration budgets in the wake of the oil price fall, creating a gap for meeting future demand, analysts at Morgan Stanley said on Monday.
The oil and gas industry discovered 2.8 billion barrels of oil outside the United States last year, the equivalent of one month of global consumption, the U.S. bank said, quoting data from consultancy Rystad Energy.
Including the United States, where the rapid expansion of the onshore shale industry unlocked major resources over the past decade, global discoveries rose to 12.1 billion figure - but still the lowest since 1952, when the oil industry was one-seventh of its current size.
Oil discoveries are vital to replace resources, meet still-growing demand and offset the depletion of existing fields.
The sharp drop in oil prices over the past two years has led companies including Exxon Mobil (XOM.N) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) to sharply reduce budgets, particularly for exploration, where spending fell in 2015 to around 95 billion from $168 billion two years earlier, according to Morgan Stanley.
Despite a big increase in exploration spending since the start of the decade, when oil demand rapidly rose, there have been few major hydrocarbon discoveries, such as Statoil's (STL.OL) Johan Sverdrup field off Norway's coast or Eni's (ENI.MI) giant Zohr gas field off Egypt.
BP last week announced the surprise departure of its exploration boss, and a shift in its oil search strategy that is focusing mainly on expanding existing fields rather than venturing expensively into the unknown.
A big increase in new oil fields in recent years and the ramp up of Iran's production following the lifting of international sanctions mean that in the short term, the impact of the low exploration record will be limited.
But even under the most modest demand forecasts, driven by a drive to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, where consumption will decline to around 86 million barrels per day in 2030, only around two thirds of the demand can be met by currently producing fields or resources under development, Morgan Stanley said.
"Building this capacity over the next 25 years will require ongoing investment. Our strong suspicion is that this will be higher than what companies are currently spending, even relative to the 2 Degrees scenario under which demand is falling."
The outlook for exploration remains challenged, the bank said.
"The return on exploration dollars spent has clearly deteriorated in recent years. On top of this, oil companies increasingly need to consider scenarios for oil demand in which there may not be much need for further exploration."
(Editing by William Hardy)