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Last Updated: June 26, 2019
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Crude oil inputs to Mexico’s petroleum refineries declined for the fifth consecutive year in 2018, falling to nearly 600,000 barrels per day (b/d), a 50% drop from 2013 levels. This decline in crude oil processing has coincided with a decrease in domestic production of the light crude oil that the country’s refineries are better suited to process. Mexico has increasingly relied on imports of petroleum products from the United States to satisfy domestic demand.

Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Mexico’s national oil company, owns and operates the country’s six petroleum refineries, which have a combined atmospheric crude oil distillation capacity of about 1.6 million b/d. On an aggregate basis, performance at Pemex refineries has declined over the past five years after maintaining an average refinery utilization rate near or above 75% between 1990 and 2013. By 2018, the utilization rate of Mexico’s refinery network fell to less than 40%.

Pemex’s refineries are mostly configured to process light crude oil. Of its six refineries, three (Minatitlan, Cadereyta, Madero) are equipped with coker units to produce lower-sulfur gasoline from heavy crude oil. The 35% decrease in Mexican light crude oil production between 2013 and 2018 has resulted in limitations on crude oil refinery inputs. Inputs of light crude oil to Pemex refineries fell below 400,000 b/d in 2018, about a 50% reduction from 2013 levels.

Refineries require periodic maintenance to ensure optimal operation of processing units that refine crude oil into petroleum products such as motor gasoline and diesel. Crude oil inputs at Pemex refineries since 2014 have been further constrained by operational issues associated with the company’s refineries.

Pemex maintains control over much of Mexico’s petroleum product imports and distribution. Declines in domestic production of liquid transportation fuels have increased Mexico’s reliance on foreign sources of refined petroleum products. Pemex imports of motor gasoline increased about 230,000 b/d between 2013 and 2018, offsetting similar declines in domestic production at Pemex refineries.

PEMEX domestic gasoline production and imports

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on data published by Petróleos Mexicanos

Mexican imports from the United States have helped to offset a large share of Pemex’s shortfall in motor gasoline production, supplying about 535,000 b/d in 2018, more than double the level of imports in 2013. Mexico receives the largest share of U.S. motor gasoline exports, with much of the remainder destined for Central and South American countries.

U.S. refineries along the Gulf Coast are able to process heavy Mexican crude oil blends with a high yield of finished, low-sulfur motor gasoline. Pemex currently obtains some of its motor gasoline from the United States through its joint venture with Shell at the 340,000 b/d refinery in Deer Park, Texas. The joint venture, which was recently extended through 2033, includes an agreement for Pemex to provide a share of heavy crude oil in exchange for finished petroleum products.

In September 2018, the Mexican government announced an initiative called the National Refining Plan to help Mexico achieve energy independence by 2022. The plan includes upgrades and reconfigurations at Pemex’s six refineries, as well as construction in Dos Bocas of a seventh refinery, which is designed to process 340,000 b/d of heavy crude oil. If achieved, Pemex refineries would be able to process 1.86 million b/d of crude oil to produce an estimated 781,000 b/d of motor gasoline and 560,000 b/d of diesel fuel.

Principal contributors: Steve Hanson, Neil Agarwal

liquid fuels crude oil petroleum Mexico refineries
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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.

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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
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  • 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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