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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The Permian is in desperate need of pipelines. That much is true. There is so much shale liquids sloshing underneath the Permian formation in Texas and New Mexico, that even though it has already upended global crude market and turned the USA into the world’s largest crude producer, there is still so much of it trapped inland, unable to make the 800km journey to the Gulf Coast that would take them to the big wider world.
The stakes are high. Even though the US is poised to reach some 12 mmb/d of crude oil production next year – more than half of that coming from shale oil formations – it could be producing a lot more. This has already caused the Brent-WTI spread to widen to a constant US$10/b since mid-2018 – when the Permian’s pipeline bottlenecks first became critical – from an average of US$4/b prior to that. It is even more dramatic in the Permian itself, where crude is selling at a US$10-16/b discount to Houston WTI, with trends pointing to the spread going as wide as US$20/b soon. Estimates suggest that a record 3,722 wells were drilled in the Permian this year but never opened because the oil could not be brought to market. This is part of the reason why the US active rig count hasn’t increased as much as would have been expected when crude prices were trending towards US$80/b – there’s no point in drilling if you can’t sell.
Assistance is on the way. Between now and 2020, estimates suggest that some 2.6 mmb/d of pipeline capacity across several projects will come onstream, with an additional 1 mmb/d in the planning stages. Add this to the existing 3.1 mmb/d of takeaway capacity (and 300,000 b/d of local refining) and Permian shale oil output currently dammed away by a wall of fixed capacity could double in size when freed to make it to market.
And more pipelines keep getting announced. In the last two weeks, Jupiter Energy Group announced a 90-day open season seeking binding commitments for a planned 1 mmb/d, 1050km long Jupiter Pipeline – which could connect the Permian to all three of Texas’ deepwater ports, Houston, Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Plains All American is launching its 500,000 b/d Sunrise Pipeline, connecting the Permian to Cushing, Oklahoma. Wolf Midstream has also launched an open season, seeking interest for its 120,000 b/d Red Wolf Crude Connector branch, connecting to its existing terminal and infrastructure in Colorado City.
Current estimates suggest that Permian output numbered around 3.5 mmb/d in October. At maximum capacity, that’s still about 100,000 b/d of shale oil trapped inland. As planned pipelines come online over the next two years, that trickle could turn into a flood. Consider this. Even at the current maxing out of Permian infrastructure, the US is already on the cusp on 12 mmb/d crude production. By 2021, it could go as high as 15 mmb/d – crude prices, permitting, of course.
As recently reported in the WSJ; “For years, the companies behind the U.S. oil-and-gas boom, including Noble Energy Inc. and Whiting Petroleum Corp. have promised shareholders they have thousands of prospective wells they can drill profitably even at $40 a barrel. Some have even said they can generate returns on investment of 30%. But most shale drillers haven’t made much, if any, money at those prices. From 2012 to 2017, the 30 biggest shale producers lost more than $50 billion. Last year, when oil prices averaged about $50 a barrel, the group as a whole was barely in the black, with profits of about $1.7 billion, or roughly 1.3% of revenue, according to FactSet.”
The immense growth experienced in the Permian has consequences for the entire oil supply chain, from refining balances – shale oil is more suitable for lighter ends like gasoline, but the world is heading for a gasoline glut and is more interested in cracking gasoil for the IMO’s strict marine fuels sulphur levels coming up in 2020 – to geopolitics, by diminishing OPEC’s power and particularly Saudi Arabia’s role as a swing producer. For now, the walls keeping a Permian flood in are still standing. In two years, they won’t, with new pipeline infrastructure in place. And so the oil world has two years to prepare for the coming tsunami, but only if crude prices stay on course.
Recent Announced Permian Pipeline Projects
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 3 December 2018 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
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