Global marine fuel regulations could shock refining and oil markets

IMO HQ London

IMO regulations call for global standards for sulphur content in marine fuel to be tightened to 0.5% from its present 3.5%.

There is uncertainty over this regulation, however, because there is the possibility that the implementation date could be dropped back from 2020 to 2025, and because it allows for the use of on-board exhaust gas scrubbers with high sulphur fuel as an alternative compliance mechanism. The uncertainty of the timing is a deterrent to both shippers and refiners to invest in facilities, either to scrub fuel or to convert high sulphur supplies to low sulphur. Also, as of today, on-board scrubbers remain at the testing stage and there are doubts over whether, and when, they will prove successful and be adopted en masse.

With scrubber penetration in 2020 now considered by many observers as likely to be low, the volume of high sulphur and mainly heavy marine fuel that would need to be converted to 0.5% sulphur marine distillate or other formulations could lie in the range of 2 mb/d to more than 3 mb/d. This requirement would be on top of the incremental volume and quality demands relating to diesel/gasoil, jet fuel/kerosene and other fuels.

The IMO intends to issue a recommendation on timing of implementation – whether 2020 or 2025 – by late 2016. However, if the date remains at 2020, this will leave only limited time for refiners to make what could ultimately be substantial investments and/or for scrubbers to be retro-fitted to thousands of ships. A risk is emerging that the implementation of the rule could lead to a period of strained refining markets with substantial price premiums versus crude oil for low sulphur distillate and residual fuels and severe discounts for high sulphur fuels. The impacts would not be limited to marine fuels, but would spread across all sectors and world regions. Complex refineries, especially those oriented to distillates, would potentially benefit but simpler refineries, especially those processing higher sulphur crude oils, would be adversely impacted, with possible implications for closures.

Long-term capacity requirements are ‘frontloaded’; the pace of needed refinery capacity
additions inexorably slows Although the pace of refinery projects has slowed in the aftermath of the recent crude oil price drop, the 8.3 mb/d of projected total additions by 2020 (which comprise 7.1 mb/d of firm assessed projects plus model-based ‘creep’ and limited additions beyond projects) still represent over 40% of the 20 mb/d cumulative total additions projected as needed by 2040. They are also 35% higher than the total demand growth in the period from 2014–2020, an excess that increases once NGLs and other non-crude supply additions are taken into account. Moreover, rational capacity additions post-2020 are expected to be no more than half the 1.4 mb/d p.a. expected between now and 2020, and less than one-third in the last five years of the forecast period.

Source: OPEC

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