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Last Updated: November 24, 2016
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Tighter marine fuel sulfur limits will spark changes by both refiners and vessel operators.

The sulfur content of transportation fuels has been declining for many years due to increasingly stringent regulations. In the United States, federal and state regulations limit the amount of sulfur present in motor gasoline, diesel fuel, and heating oil. New international regulations limiting sulfur in fuels for ocean-going vessels, set to take effect in 2020, have further implications for both refiners and vessel operators at a time of high uncertainty in future crude oil prices, which will be a major factor in their decisions.

Bunker fuelthe fuel typically used in large ocean-going vesselsis a mixture of petroleum-based oils. Residual oilthe long-chain hydrocarbons remaining after lighter and shorter hydrocarbon fractions such as gasoline and diesel have been separated from crude oilcurrently makes up the largest component of bunker fuel. The sulfur content of crude oil tends to be more concentrated in heavier hydrocarbon molecules, with heavier petroleum products such as residual oil having higher sulfur content than lighter ones like gasoline and diesel.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the 171-member state United Nations agency that sets standards for marine fuels, decided in October to move forward with a plan to reduce the maximum amount of sulfur and other pollutants present in marine fuels used on the open seas from 3.5% by weight to 0.5% by weight by 2020. This decision follows several other marine fuel regulations limiting sulfur content, such as the implementation of Emissions Control Area (ECA) requirements in coastal waters and specific sea-lanes in North America and Europe, where the maximum sulfur content of fuels was limited to 0.1% by weight starting in July 2015 (Figure 1).

Additionally, the state of California and the European Union have regulations on the sulfur content of marine fuels, and the types of fuel used when ships are at dock, waiting to dock, or are maneuvering within port. For example, a vessel approaching the port of San Francisco may have to change its fuel mix twice: once when going from the open seas higher-sulfur fuel of mostly residual oil, to an ECA compliant lower-sulfur fuel mix, and again to a marine diesel fuel compliant with California's ocean-going vessel regulations for use within ports (Figure 2).

The IMO sulfur limits that take effect in 2020 will affect the fuel used in the open seas, the largest portion of the approximately 3.9 million barrels per day of global marine fuel use, according to the International Energy Agency, presenting several challenges for both refiners and shippers.

The first challenge for refiners is to increase the supply of lower-sulfur blendstocks to the bunker fuel market. Refiners have several potential paths. One approach is to divert more low sulfur distillates into the bunker fuel market. Another option would be to use low sulfur intermediate refinery feedstocks in bunker blends. In both cases, care is required to assure that new fuels continue to meet specifications for use in marine engines.
A second challenge for refiners is what to do with the high sulfur residual oil that can no longer be blended into bunker fuel. Adding capacity to desulfurize residual oil is one option, but the economics do not currently appear to be attractive. An alternative strategy is to build or expand refinery units that take heavy hydrocarbons, such as residual oil, and upgrade them into lighter, more valuable products, but this would require large investments. In either of these cases, refineries would be faced with investments and costs that are acceptable only if there is certainty of future demand from the shipping industry.

Vessel operators also have several choices for compliance with the new IMO sulfur limits. For example, IMO regulations allow for the installation of scrubbers, which remove pollutants from ships exhaust, allowing them to continue to use higher-sulfur fuels. Some ship owners that operate primarily in coastal areas, such as cruise lines and ferries, opted to install scrubbers on their vessels as the new ECA regulations came into force. The possibility of widespread scrubber installations, which would allow for continued use of higher sulfur residual oils, could make refiners hesitant about making large investments to build refining units capable of upgrading the residual oils.

Ships also have the option of switching to new lower sulfur blends or to non-petroleum based fuels. Some newer ships and some currently being built have engines that would allow them to use liquefied natural gas (LNG) rather than petroleum-based products. However, the infrastructure to support use of LNG as a shipping fuel is currently limited in both scale and availability.
Vessel operators and shippers will also likely be faced with the higher costs as the sulfur content in marine fuels decreases and the role of distillate in the bunker fuel market increases. An example of the price difference between fuels can be observed at the refining and trading hub in Northwest Europe, known as the ARA, collectively the cities Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the Netherlands and Antwerp, in Belgium. Prices for low sulfur gasoil, a type of distillate, in the ARA has averaged over $20 per barrel more than high sulfur fuel oil (residual oil for use as a fuel) to date in 2016. Fuel blends used to meet the new IMO regulations are likely to price somewhere in between these two fuels (Figure 3).

U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel retail prices decline
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price dropped three cents from the previous week to $2.16 per gallon on November 21, up six cents from the same time last year. The Gulf Coast price fell six cents to $1.92 per gallon, while the West Coast, Rocky Mountain, and East Coast prices each fell five cents to $2.59 per gallon, $2.19 per gallon, and $2.17 per gallon, respectively. The Midwest price rose two cents to $2.01 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price dropped two cents to $2.42 per gallon, down two cents from the same time last year. The Rocky Mountain price fell four cents to $2.46 per gallon, while the West Coast and Midwest prices each fell three cents to $2.73 per gallon and $2.36 per gallon, respectively. The Gulf Coast price dipped two cents to $2.30 per gallon, and the East Coast price fell a penny to $2.44 per gallon.

Propane inventories gain U.S. propane stocks increased by 1.8 million barrels last week to 102.7 million barrels as of November 18, 2016, 3.5 million barrels (3.3%) lower than a year ago. Gulf Coast and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories increased by 1.7 million barrels and 0.1 million barrels, respectively, while East Coast and Midwest inventories remained virtually unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 4.0% of total propane inventories.

Residential heating oil price unchanged while residential propane price increases as of November 21, 2016, residential heating oil prices averaged around $2.38 per gallon, virtually unchanged from last week and less than one cent per gallon higher than last year at this time. The average wholesale heating oil price is $1.55 per gallon, nearly eight cents per gallon higher than last week and 13 cents per gallon more than a year ago.

Residential propane prices averaged nearly $2.06 per gallon, one cent per gallon more than last week and almost 11 cents per gallon more than one year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged $0.62 per gallon, about the same price as last week but 13 cents per gallon more than last year's price.

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High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.  

A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.

Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.

Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.

And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.

That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.

Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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