When it was first announced in 2012, there was scepticism about whether or not Petronas’ RAPID refinery in Johor was destined for reality or cancellation. It came at a time when the refining industry saw multiple ambitious, sometimes unpractical, projects announced. At that point, Petronas – though one of the most respected state oil firms – was still seen as more of an upstream player internationally. Its downstream forays were largely confined to its home base Malaysia and specialty chemicals, as well as a surprising venture into South African through Engen. Its refineries, too, were relatively small. So the announcement that Petronas was planning essentially, its own Jamnagar, promoted some pessimism. Could it succeed?
It has. The RAPID refinery – part of a larger plan to turn the Pengerang district in southern Johor into an oil refining and storage hub capitalising on linkages with Singapore – received its first cargo of crude oil for testing in September 2018. Mechanical completion was achieved on November 29 and all critical units have begun commissioning ahead of the expected firing up of RAPID’s 300 kb/d CDU later this month. A second cargo of 2 million barrels of Saudi crude arrived at RAPID last week. It seems like it’s all systems go for RAPID. But it wasn’t always so clear cut. Financing difficulties – and the 2015 crude oil price crash – put the US$27 billion project on shaky ground for a while, and it was only when Saudi Aramco swooped in to purchase a US$7 billion stake in the project that it started coalescing. Petronas had been courting Aramco since the start of the project, mainly as a crude provider, but having the Saudi giant on board was the final step towards FID. It guaranteed a stable supply of crude for Petronas; and for Aramco, RAPID gave it a foothold in a major global refining hub area as part of its strategy to expand downstream.
But RAPID will be entering into a market quite different than when it was first announced. In 2012, demand for fuel products was concentrated on light distillates; in 2019, that focus has changed. Impending new International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations are requiring shippers to switch from burning cheap (and dirty) fuel oil to using cleaner middle distillate gasoils. This plays well into complex refineries like RAPID, specialising in cracking heavy and medium Arabian crude into valuable products. But the issue is that Asia and the rest of the world is currently swamped with gasoline. A whole host of new Asian refineries – the latest being the 200 kb/d Nghi Son in Vietnam – have contributed to growing volumes of gasoline with no home in Asia. Gasoline refining margins in Singapore have taken a hit, falling into negative territory for the first time in seven years. Adding RAPID to the equation places more pressure on gasoline margins, even though margins for middle distillates are still very healthy. And with three other large Asian refinery projects scheduled to come online in 2019 – one in Brunei and two in China – that glut will only grow.
The safety valve for RAPID (and indeed the other refineries due this year) is that they have been planned with deep petrochemicals integration, using naphtha produced from the refinery portion. RAPID itself is planned to have capacity of 3 million tpa of ethylene, propylene and other olefins – still a lucrative market that justifies the mega-investment. But it will be at least two years before RAPID’s petrochemicals portion will be ready to start up, and when it does, it’ll face the same set of challenging circumstances as refineries like Hengli’s 400 kb/d Dalian Changxing plant also bring online their petchem operations. But that is a problem for the future and for now, RAPID is first out of the gate into reality. It won’t be entering in a bonanza fuels market as predicted in 2012, but there is still space in the market for RAPID – and a few other like in – at least for now.
RAPID Refinery Factsheet:
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U.S. crude oil production in the U.S. Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) averaged 1.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018, setting a new annual record. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects oil production in the GOM to set new production records in 2019 and in 2020, even after accounting for shut-ins related to Hurricane Barry in July 2019 and including forecasted adjustments for hurricane-related shut-ins for the remainder of 2019 and for 2020.
Based on EIA’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook’s (STEO) expected production levels at new and existing fields, annual crude oil production in the GOM will increase to an average of 1.9 million b/d in 2019 and 2.0 million b/d in 2020. However, even with this level of growth, projected GOM crude oil production will account for a smaller share of the U.S. total. EIA expects the GOM to account for 15% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2019 and in 2020, compared with 23% of total U.S. crude oil production in 2011, as onshore production growth continues to outpace offshore production growth.
In 2019, crude oil production in the GOM fell from 1.9 million b/d in June to 1.6 million b/d in July because some production platforms were evacuated in anticipation of Hurricane Barry. This disruption was resolved relatively quickly, and no disruptions caused by Hurricane Barry remain. Although final data are not yet available, EIA estimates GOM crude oil production reached 2.0 million b/d in August 2019.
Producers expect eight new projects to come online in 2019 and four more in 2020. EIA expects these projects to contribute about 44,000 b/d in 2019 and about 190,000 b/d in 2020 as projects ramp up production. Uncertainties in oil markets affect long-term planning and operations in the GOM, and the timelines of future projects may change accordingly.
Source: Rystad Energy
Because of the amount of time needed to discover and develop large offshore projects, oil production in the GOM is less sensitive to short-term oil price movements than onshore production in the Lower 48 states. In 2015 and early 2016, decreasing profit margins and reduced expectations for a quick oil price recovery prompted many GOM operators to reconsider future exploration spending and to restructure or delay drilling rig contracts, causing average monthly rig counts to decline through 2018.
Crude oil price increases in 2017 and 2018 relative to lows in 2015 and 2016 have not yet had a significant effect on operations in the GOM, but they have the potential to contribute to increasing rig counts and field discoveries in the coming years. Unlike onshore operations, falling rig counts do not affect current production levels, but instead they affect the discovery of future fields and the start-up of new projects.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Refinery Report
The API gravity of crude oil input to U.S. refineries has generally increased, or gotten lighter, since 2011 because of changes in domestic production and imports. Regionally, refinery crude slates—or the mix of crude oil grades that a refinery is processing—have become lighter in the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and West Coast regions, and they have become slightly heavier in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions.
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, so light oils have high API gravities. Crude oil with an API gravity greater than 38 degrees is generally considered light crude oil; crude oil with an API gravity of 22 degrees or below is considered heavy crude oil.
The crude slate processed in refineries situated along the Gulf Coast—the region with the most refining capacity in the United States—has had the largest increase in API gravity, increasing from an average of 30.0 degrees in 2011 to an average of 32.6 degrees in 2018. The West Coast had the heaviest crude slate in 2018 at 28.2 degrees, and the East Coast had the lightest of the three regions at 34.8 degrees.
Production of increasingly lighter crude oil in the United States has contributed to the overall lightening of the crude oil slate for U.S. refiners. The fastest-growing category of domestic production has been crude oil with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees, according to data in the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production Report.
Since 2015, when EIA began collecting crude oil production data by API gravity, light crude oil production in the Lower 48 states has grown from an annual average of 4.6 million barrels per day (b/d) to 6.4 million b/d in the first seven months of 2019.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production Report
When setting crude oil slates, refiners consider logistical constraints and the cost of transportation, as well as their unique refinery configuration. For example, nearly all (more than 99% in 2018) crude oil imports to the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain regions come from Canada because of geographic proximity and existing pipeline and rail infrastructure between these regions.
Crude oil imports from Canada, which consist of mostly heavy crude oil, have increased by 67% since 2011 because of increased Canadian production. Crude oil imports from Canada have accounted for a greater share of refinery inputs in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, leading to heavier refinery crude slates in these regions.
By comparison, crude oil production in Texas tends to be lighter: Texas accounted for half of crude oil production above 40 degrees API in the United States in 2018. The share of domestic crude oil in the Gulf Coast refinery crude oil slate increased from 36% in 2011 to 70% in 2018. As a result, the change in the average API gravity of crude oil processed in refineries in the Gulf Coast region was the largest increase among all regions in the United States during that period.
East Coast refineries have three ways to receive crude oil shipments, depending on which are more economical: by rail from the Midwest, by coastwise-compliant (Jones Act) tankers from the Gulf Coast, or by importing. From 2011 to 2018, the share of imported crude oil in the East Coast region decreased from 95% to 81% as the share of domestic crude oil inputs increased. Conversely, the share of imported crude oil at West Coast refineries increased from 46% in 2011 to 51% in 2018.
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 7 October 2019 – Brent: US$58/b; WTI: US$52/b
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