By some reports, China is expected to account for 50% of all growth in the petrochemical sector through 2025. As the country rushes to attempt petrochemical self-sufficiency – China remains deficit particularly in ethylene and benzene, as also derivatives, as its domestic demand booms – its petrochemicals sector is reaping the rewards. But there are also risks ahead.
Data for 2017 released by the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation indicated a bumper 2017 for petrochemicals. Revenue rose to US$2.27 trillion while profits jumped by 30% to US$130 billion. International trade represented about a quarter of all revenue, indicating that much of the production and consumption of petrochemicals is taking place domestically. China is already a significant exporter of PTA, and also exports polyethylene and polypropylene, but these numbers will generally play a secondary role in response to booming domestic petrochemical demand.
Some observers have identified China’s state edict in 2016 to improve competitiveness in the petrochemicals industry as the reason for the industry’s improving bottom line. State-sanctioned and directed mergers bundled major and minor, private and public producers together over 2016 and 2017, creating a network of stronger and unified players. If that has been responsible for the success in 2017, then another state drive might slow things down in 2018.
To deal with the environmental impact of the petrochemical sector, China is mandating a ‘green tax’ across the industry to fund anti-pollution schemes. Energy consumption per yuan of output must also be reduced by 8%, CO2 emission by 10% and water consumption by 14% in 2020 from their 2015 levels, targets issued by the National Development and Reform Commission. Scores of plants that now operate within densely populated and growing urban areas must also relocated to more remote areas; some estimates suggest that some 500 ‘toxic’ plants must relocated, with 185 in Shandong province alone.
This accelerated environmental drive could see the Chinese petrochemical sector slow down in 2018, as it grapples with additional costs to promote efficiencies. But as always, the Chinese also have an answer to that. If it is getting too difficult to grow wantonly domestically, then why not do it overseas? In the last month, Tianjin Bohai Petrochemical agreed to construct a US$4.3 billion petchems complex in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan, while an unnamed private Chinese firm is building a PP plant in Kharvana, Iran. It may be far from Chinese borders, but will still contribute to the growing strength and clout of China’s petrochemicals industry.
China’s Petrochemical Industry in 2017
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 8 October 2018 – Brent: US$84/b; WTI: US$74/b
Headlines of the week
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production
As domestic production continues to increase, the average density of crude oil produced in the United States continues to become lighter. The average API gravity—a measure of a crude oil’s density where higher numbers mean lower density—of U.S. crude oil increased in 2017 and through the first six months of 2018. Crude oil production with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees grew by 310,000 barrels per day (b/d) to more than 4.6 million b/d in 2017. This increase represents 53% of total Lower 48 production in 2017, an increase from 50% in 2015, the earliest year for which EIA has oil production data by API gravity.
API gravity is measured as the inverse of the density of a petroleum liquid relative to water. The higher the API gravity, the lower the density of the petroleum liquid, meaning lighter oils have higher API gravities. The increase in light crude oil production is the result of the growth in crude oil production from tight formations enabled by improvements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Along with sulfur content, API gravity determines the type of processing needed to refine crude oil into fuel and other petroleum products, all of which factor into refineries’ profits. Overall U.S. refining capacity is geared toward a diverse range of crude oil inputs, so it can be uneconomic to run some refineries solely on light crude oil. Conversely, it is impossible to run some refineries on heavy crude oil without producing significant quantities of low-valued heavy products such as residual fuel.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production
API gravity can differ greatly by production area. For example, oil produced in Texas—the largest crude oil-producing state—has a relatively broad distribution of API gravities with most production ranging from 30 to 50 degrees API. However, crude oil with API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees accounted for the largest share of Texas production, at 55%, in 2017. This category was also the fastest growing, reaching 1.9 million b/d, driven by increasing production in the tight oil plays of the Permian and Eagle Ford.
Oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken formation also tends to be less dense and lighter. About 90% of North Dakota’s 2017 crude oil production had an API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees. The oil coming from the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) tends to be more dense and heavier. More than 34% of the crude oil produced in the GOM in 2017 had an API gravity of lower than 30 degrees and 65% had an API gravity of 30 to 40 degrees.
In contrast to the increasing production of light crude oil in the United States, imported crude oil continues to be heavier. In 2017, 7.6 million b/d (96%) of imported crude oil had an API gravity of 40 or below, compared with 4.2 million b/d (48%) of domestic production.
EIA collects API gravity production data by state in the monthly crude oil and natural gas production report as well as crude oil quality by company level imports to better inform analysis of refinery inputs and utilization, crude oil trade, and regional crude oil pricing. API gravity is also projected to continue changing: EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2018 Reference case projects that U.S. oil production from tight formations will continue to increase in the coming decades.
Less than two weeks ago, the VLCC Navarin arrived at Tanjung Pengerang, at the southern end of Peninsular Malaysia. It was carrying two million barrels of crude oil, split equally between Saudi Arab Medium and Iraqi Basra Light grades.
The RAPID refinery in Johor. An equal joint partnership between Malaysia’s Petronas and Saudi Aramco whose 300 kb/d mega refinery is nearing completion. Once questioned for its economic viability, RAPID is now scheduled to start up in early 2019, entering a market that is still booming and in demand of the higher quality, Euro IV and Euro V level fuels RAPID will produce.
Beyond fuel products, RAPID will also have massive petrochemical capacity. Meant to come on online at a later date, RAPID will have a collective capacity of some 7.7 million tons per annum of differentiated and specialty chemicals, including 3 mtpa of propylene. To be completed in stages, Petronas nonetheless projects that it will add some 3.3 million tons of petrochemicals to the Asia market by the end of next year. That’s blockbuster numbers, and it will elevate Petronas’ stature in downstream, bringing more international appeal to a refining network previously focused mainly on Malaysia. For its partner Saudi Aramco, RAPID is part of a multi-pronged strategy of investing mega refineries in key parts of the world, to diversify its business and ensure demand for its crude flows as it edges towards an IPO.
RAPID won’t be alone. Vietnam’s second refinery – the 200 kb/d Nghi Son – has finally started up this year after multiple delays. And in the same timeframe as RAPID, the Zhejiang refinery by Rongsheng Petro Chemical and the Dalian refinery by Hengli Petrochemical in China are both due to start up. At 400 kb/d each, that could add 1.1 mmb/d of new refining capacity in Asia within 1H19. And there’s more coming. Hengli’s Pulau Muara Besar project in Brunei is also aiming for a 2019 start, potentially adding another 175 kb/d of capacity. And just like RAPID, each of these new or recent projects has substantial petrochemical capacity planned.
That’s okay for now, since demand remains strong. But the danger is that this could all unravel. With American sanctions on Iran due to kick in November, even existing refineries are fleeing from contributing to Tehran in favour of other crude grades. The new refineries will be entering a tight market that could become even tighter. RAPID can rely on Saudi Arabia and Nghi Son can depend on Kuwait, both the Chinese projects are having to scramble to find alternate supplies for their designed diet of heavy sour crude. This race to find supplies has already sent Brent prices to four-year highs, and most in the industry are already predicting that crude oil prices will rise to US$100/b by the year’s end. At prices like this, demand destruction begins and the current massive growth – fuelled by cheap oil prices – could come to an end. The market can rapidly change again, and by the end of this decade, Asia could be swirling with far more oil products that it can handle.
Upcoming and recent Asia refineries: