Pakistan’s new Prime Minister loves skydiving and he is bringing that adrenaline-seeking attitude in a bid to reshape a country that has long languished from crippled energy infrastructure. Fuel demand is soaring – gasoline volumes alone has tripled between 2010 and 2016 – but aging domestic refineries means much of this has to be imported. Rolling blackouts across the country are common, product of a power grid that is old and underfed.
One of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s first moves as Prime Minster, after Nawaz Sharif was barred from public office by the Supreme Court over Panamagate corruption charges, was to merge the country’s petroleum and power ministries. The new Ministry of Energy, headed by Abbasi himself, acknowledges the intrinsic link between all aspects of the country’s energy industry in an attempt to prevent the in-fighting and cross-purposes that the old bureaucratic structure promoted.
The solution, according to Abbasi, is to champion the use of LNG and promote foreign investment in the oil sector to move the onus away from beleaguered state companies. The LNG slant is nothing new; Abbasi served in the Pakistan cabinet under the PML-N party and promoted LNG as a solution to Pakistan’s ailing electricity network. To that end, his position as Prime Minister merely hastens a transition that was originally in the works. His vision is to depend on import LNG and domestic coal in a two-pronged approach to boost power generation and reduce dependence on imported gasoil/fuel oil, with an ambitious deadline to end blackouts by November 2017, giving his party a boost ahead of elections due in 2018.
To that end, Pakistan needs to be to import and re-gas LNG. Pakistan has signed two LNG supply contracts so far this year – a five-year deal with Gunvor and a 15-year deal with Italy’s Eni that will bring 3.6 million tons and 11 million tons (across 60 and 180 cargoes) to Pakistan. Competition for the tender was stiff, with all major traders including Glencore, Trafigura, Shell and Petronas taking part. This adds to Pakistan’s existing contracts with Gunvor and Qatargas, which began when LNG imports first started in 2015. On the receiving end, Pakistan is n a multi-billion spending spree that includes the construction of a second and third LNG import terminal and pipelines linking coastal Karachi with inland Lahore, the country’s industrial heartland. Up to five more terminals are being considered – in Karachi and in Gwadar – which could conceivably make Pakistan one of the world’s top five LNG importers by 2022.
The massive influx of LNG would help in providing power to a fast-growing population – especially when combined with domestic coal power expansion – but the other side of the equation is oil. The 120 kb/d Balochistan refinery – the largest in Pakistan – has been out of commission since 2015 due to fire damage. Aging refineries elsewhere have curbed the ability to provide domestic sources of fuel. This is a gap that foreign traders have exploited. Vitol bought a stake in local retailer Hascol Petroleum in 2015, recently increasing its share from 15% to 25%, followed by Trafigura (via subsidiary Puma Energy) this month through the purchase of a stake in the Admore Gas fuel retail network – capitalising on a gap in the market that requires imported supply to fill.
The longer term solution will be to beef up refining capabilities. Byco Petroleum has restarted operations at the Balochistan refinery after two years of repairs, supplying its own retail network as well as others owned by Pakistan State Oil, Shell, Hascol and Admore. Beyond that, Pakistan is looking to the usual suspect – China – for more capacity. The WAK Group and Guangdong Electrical Design Institute are building a US$3.58 billion 100 kb/d refinery for private player Falcon Oil, expected to be ready by 2020.
Almost all of the crude required to run these refineries will have to be imported. Domestic crude supplies are drying up, with Pakistan’s state-owned firms focusing on new exploration activities. Oil & Gas Development Co and Pakistan Petroleum have both doubled well drilling and seismic activity in the last two years, capitalising on cheaper costs, though this is bringing them to areas of the country rife with insurgent activity. And once again, it is China to the rescue. Chinese firms Poly-GCL and Sino-PEC have agreed to invest in Pakistan’s upstream sector, tempted by oil and shale gas reserves in Sindh and Balochistan. If successful, increased domestic production could reduce Pakistan’s dependence on imports. But that’s in the long run.
For now, Abbasi has set an achievable path to energy optimisation for Pakistan. All that’s left is to implement it successfully. Which is always the harder part of that equation.
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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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