Oil refiners face rising risk from transition towards carbon-free world — Moody’s

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KUALA LUMPUR (Feb 20): As the world moves towards lower carbon emissions, the business of oil refining appears to be at risk in the long run from tightening regulatory environment combined with transformation in the transportation sector, said Moody’s Investor Service.

While oil refiners only make up 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions of 32 gigatonnes in 2016, oil consumption contributes over 30% of the figure, said Moody’s in a oil and gas (O&G) sector in-depth report dated Feb 20.

Ultimately, efforts to reduce emissions from refined products such as gasoline is expected to “materially change crude and product flows and pressure refinery utilisation”, said the report.

The pressure, said Moody’s, will come from changes involving light passenger vehicles (LPV), as demand for gasoline is expected to peak much sooner than other oils, thanks to the race towards electric LPVs which constitute 26% of global gasoline demand.

Also adding to potential overcapacity is the possible expansion by refiners in Asia to meet its own growing energy appetite, followed by those in the Middle East, which coincides with OECD nations’ push to reduce carbon emissions.

Moody’s Vice President John Thieroff said in a statement that around 10% of existing global throughput capacity by independent refiners (excluding integrated and national oil companies) is at risk of closure by 2025.

The figure to increase to 25% by 2035 “although we don't see that scenario as likely at this time”, said Thieroff, adding that any transition towards alternative fuels will be gradual.

“Carbon transition risks facing refiners include lower demand for refined products over time due to policy initiatives, vulnerability to changing consumer preferences and technological shocks, especially in the transportation sector,” Thieroff added.

While Moody's expect global oil demand demand to continue growing through 2040, "demand in the OECD will peak much sooner". It also sees global oil incumbency — particularly as fuel for heavy-duty vehicles — to continue to generate demand growth through “at least 2030”, due to technological challenges to electrify heavy-duty engines.

"Accelerated growth in alternative fuel vehicles and electric vehicles will exacerbate declining demand, but the difficulty of predicting the degree and speed of rising popularity for alternative fuel vehicles poses challenges in itself," said Thieroff.

"Producing these vehicles require changes to the manufacturing process, heightened coordination with auto-parts suppliers, improvements in battery life and costs, and the spread of supporting infrastructure such as power-charging stations,” he added.

However, fuel produced primarily in export markets with higher carbon prices would face competitive disadvantages against products with lower or zero carbon prices, said the report.

Also supporting growth will be demand for oil for petrochemicals. That, said the report, is expected to grow by over 45% in 2040 from just under 13% presently “given the more limited range of options for alternative fuels and the expectation for strong activity growth in those segments”.

In the bigger picture, emission-related regulations for refineries and refined products is expected to increase “noticeably” in the coming decades — but the timing and costs of such regulation will vary considerably between different places, giving an edge for refiners in jurisdictions that are slower to implement such regulations to generate higher operating margins, said Moody’s.

Regardless, as with the scenario in Asia and Middle East, lower-complexity refiners in Europe and US East Cost face the threat of stranded assets amid declining demand for LPV fuels. “These refiners will be forced to become competitive in distant export markets or face the possibility of closure,” said the report.