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Last Updated: December 1, 2016
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The sulfur content of transportation fuels has been declining for many years as a result of 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 operational decisions.


Bunker fuel—the fuel typically used in large ocean-going vessels—is a mixture of petroleum-based oils. Residual oil—the long-chain hydrocarbons remaining after lighter and shorter hydrocarbon fractions such as gasoline and diesel have been separated from crude oil—currently makes up the largest component of bunker fuel. The sulfur content of crude oil tends to be more concentrated in heavier hydrocarbons, 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 United Nations agency that sets standards for marine fuels, decided in October to move forward with a plan to reduce the maximum allowable levels of sulfur and other pollutants 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, which limited the maximum sulfur content of fuels to 0.1% by weight starting in July 2015.


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. These limits will present 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 is to use low-sulfur intermediate refinery feedstocks in bunker blends.


A second challenge for refiners is deciding 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 to do so are not currently attractive to refiners. An alternative strategy is to build or expand refinery units that take heavy hydrocarbons and upgrade them into lighter, more valuable products. 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 ships to continue to use 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 nonpetroleum-based fuels. Some newer ships can use liquefied natural gas (LNG) rather than petroleum-based products. However, the infrastructure to support the 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 higher costs as the sulfur content in marine fuels decreases and as the role of distillate in the bunker fuel market increases. An example of the price difference between fuels can be observed at the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp refining and trading hub in Northwest Europe. In 2016, prices for low-sulfur gasoil, a type of distillate, have averaged over $20 per barrel more than high-sulfur fuel oil (residual oil for use as a fuel) to date. Fuel blends used to meet the new IMO regulations are likely to be priced somewhere between these two fuels.

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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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Construction supply is an essential part of any construction site too. Construction supply shops are usually limited to the geographic area where they are located. This is because, in order for construction supplies to be delivered on time, they must be close to the construction site that ordered them. But with modern technology and internet connectivity, it has become possible for people to purchase their construction supplies online and have them shipped right to their doorstep. Online stores such as Supply House offer a wide variety of products that can help you find what you need without having to drive around town looking for it.

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