Petrochemicals, Front And Center
I took my usual seat at IHS’s World Petrochemical Conference at the Hilton Americas in downtown Houston today, front and center, as I have for 12 previous annual conferences run by CMAI. “The world is right when you’re sitting in the front row,” Mark Eramo, vice president of chemical industry research and analysis, said as he passed. He has given the big ethylene talk each year that I have attended the conference.
IHS purchased CMAI since the last conference. I was worried that IHS might mess with a good thing. The conferences have been a bigger and bigger draw year after year. IHS made some changes, but they were for the better. Instead of a keynote by an august petrochemical executive, there was a panel featuring five of them.
That forum gave me the impression that petrochemical executives may be exuberant about the prospects of feedstocks from shale, but they are also realistic. Since the last conference, five companies—ChevronPhillips Chemical, Dow Chemical, Shell Chemicals, Sasol, and Formosa have announced new U.S. ethylene crackers. “Not all crackers that have been announced may be built, certainly not in the announced timeframe,” noted Ben van Beurden of Shell Chemicals.
Jim Gallogly, CEO of LyondellBasell, made a similar point. “It’s likely you won’t see all the crackers advanced,” he said. Lyondell, for its part, is focused on expansions of existing U.S. facilities, to the tune of half a new cracker’s worth of output.
Also, Gallogly mentioned that his company would be interested in a “condo” cracker, perhaps at an existing facility. As I understand the concept, this would be a cracker that would have two or more partners, each with a defined offtake. I remember Dan Smith, a Gallogly predecessor, talking about this concept about a decade ago, just when the Middle East and Asia started getting all the petrochemical investment. If I had to guess how this might play out today, I would think it would be an project involving Lyondell, a partner with access to feedstocks, and maybe a partner trying to back-integrate an ethylene derivative such as ethylene oxide, alpha olefins, or vinyl chloride monomer.
Curiously, in the Q&A, van Beurden kept on getting asked why Shell announced a cracker and Gallogly kept on getting asked why LyondellBasell hasn’t announced a cracker. In fact, one attendee brought up the exact same two problems I noted with Shell project—that Shell no longer makes polyethylene and that Monaca, Pa., is relatively isolated from the rest of the petrochemical world. Van Beurden said there is as a big advantage being close to the converters—customers would enjoy quicker delivery and less working capital tied up in inventory. He also said there was an infrastructure solution to the isolation problem.
As far as Eramo’s talk goes, while here in the U.S. the profits have been enormous, the global industry is actually beginning to climb out of a cyclical supply-side trough. Demand for ethylene is 127 million metric tons globally, he noted, and growing at a 4.3% annual clip. It is forecast to reach 157 million tons by 2016, at which time the industry will likely see operating rates at around 90%, when the industry should see peak profitability.