Thursday, November 11, 2010

Talking Refinery Infrastructure on CNBC

This week marked the culmination of almost a month and a half of my research work for Infrastructure Journal on the subject of oil refinery infrastructure and how it is fairing. Putting things into context, like many others in the media I too share an obsession with the price of crude oil and upstream investment. I wanted to redress the balance and analyse investment in the one crucial piece of infrastructure that makes (or cracks) crude into gasoline, i.e. refineries. After all, the consumer gets his/her gasoline at the gas station – not the oil well. The depth of Infrastructure Journal's industry data (wherein a project’s details from inception to financial close are meticulously recorded) and the resources the publication made available to me made this study possible. It was published on Wednesday, following which I went over to discuss my findings with the team of CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe.

I told CNBC (click to watch) that my findings suggest activity in private or public sector finance for oil refinery projects, hitherto a very cyclical and capital-intensive industry currently facing poor margins, is likely to remain muted, a scenario which is not going to materially alter before 2012.

The evidence is clear, integrated oil companies have and will continue to divest in downstream assets particularly refineries because upstream investment culture of high risk, high rewards trumps it.

Growth in finance activity is likely to come from Asia in general and surprise, surprise India and China in particular. It is not that margins are any better in these two countries but given their respective consumers’ need for gasoline and diesel – margins become a lesser concern.

However, in the west, while refiners’ margins remain tight, new and large refinery infrastructure projects would see postponements, if not cancellations. In order to mitigate overcapacity, a number of mainly North American and European refiners or integrated companies will shutdown existing facilities, albeit quite a few of the shutdowns will be temporary.

Geoff Cutmore and Maithreyi Seetharaman probed me over what had materially changed, after all margins have always been tight? Tight yes, but my conjecture is that over the last five years they have taken a plastering. On a 2010 pricing basis, BP Statistical Review of World Energy notes that the 2009 refining average of US$4.00 per barrel fell below the 2008 figure of $6.50 per barrel; a fall of 38.5%. In fact, moving away from the average, on an annualised basis, margins fell in all regions except the US Midwest last year while margins in Singapore were barely positive.

Negative demand has in effect exasperated overcapacity both in Europe and North America. BP notes that global crude runs fell by 1.5 million bpd in 2009 with the only growth coming from India and China where several new refining capacities, either private or publicly financed, were commissioned. Its research further reveals that most of the 2 million bpd increase in global refining capacity in 2009 was also in China and India. Furthermore, global refinery utilisation fell to 81.1% last year; the lowest level since 1994.

In fact does it surprise anyone that non-OECD refinery capacity exceeded that of the OECD for the first time in 2009? It doesn’t surprise me one jot. I see this trend continuing in 2010 and what happens thereafter would depend on how many OECD existing refineries facing temporary shutdown are brought back onstream and/or if an uptick in demand is duly noted by the OECD nations. A hope for positive vibes on both fronts in the short to medium term is well...wishful thinking.

Refineries were once trophy assets for integrated oil companies but in the energy business people tend to have short memories. Alas, as I wrote for Infrastructure Journal (my current employers) and told CNBC Europe (my former employers), now they are the unloved assets of the energy business.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo 1: Gaurav Sharma on Squawk Box Europe © CNBC, Nov 10, 2010, Photo 2: Oil Refinery Billings, Montana © Gordon Wiltsie / National Geographic Society

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