WPC ’15: Likely recovery in crude markets justifies new ethylene investments

By Ben DuBose
Online Editor

GALVESTON, Texas -- Global crude prices are poised to recover toward the $100/bbl range by the year 2020, meaning that many of the world's recently-planned ethylene investments from non-oil feedstocks are still economical moving forward, a leading industry consultant believes.

Steve Lewandowski, senior director of global olefins at IHS Chemical, offered his ethylene outlook on Thursday at the 30th annual IHS World Petrochemical Conference. 

He noted that the margin advantage for US ethane-based plants and Chinese coal-based projects have dipped in 2015 due to low pricing for rival oil-based naphtha production elsewhere, but those advantages are expected to largely recover in coming years.

"Today we are experiencing, via the drop in energy prices, a big reduction in margins across the world for the advantaged regions, North America and the Middle East," Lewandowski said. "The other crude feed-based regions remained about on par to where they have been, with no big gain and no big loss in margin."

Lewandowski says that this runs in great contrast to the past few years, where some areas like the US Gulf Coast had very high margins due to advantaged feedstock costs in a high crude environment. Meanwhile, producers in other regions saw much lower margins as their feedstock pricing moved more closely to crude oil price movements.

That led to a wave of new ethylene capacity announcements planned to start up in the second half of this decade, many based on non-oil feedstocks such as natural gas liquids (NGLs) in North America and coal in China.

For now, many of those companies might be nervous, considering the current margins aren't what they were in 2012 and 2013, when many of the projects were formulated. But by the time those new ethylene crackers actually start operations toward the end of this decade, margins should be well on the road to recovery, Lewandowski says.

"Ethylene prices dip in the short term and recover in the longer run with energy returning to higher levels," Lewandowski said. "Margins return in advantaged regions, and all regions could benefit by the potential of increased ethylene production operating rates."

Current crude prices, which have hovered between $50/bbl and $60/bbl for much of 2015, have reduced the advantage that NGL and coal-based crackers would have relative to naphtha-based crackers elsewhere in the world. But IHS says it sees crude prices "bottoming out" in 2015, with the 2015 low point driven by reduced global demand, production increases in North America and a more stable production rate out of Libya.

Starting in the second half of 2015, the reduction in production due to depressed crude prices and a pick-up in global demand growth will gradually pull prices back up, with a recovery to the $100/bbl range by the end of this decade.

"With crude pricing increases, the other ethylene production feed sources -- coal and gas for methanol, and ethane in North America -- see a tremendous change in their pricing relationships to crude," Lewandowski said. "Those new pricing relationships are what's driving major capital investments in ethylene."

The margins aren't predicted to be quite as rosy as they were a year or two ago, but they are projected to be very healthy, Lewandowski maintains.

"In our forecast period, we do not expect to return to the 2012–14 range of advantage for US ethane, but we do expect it to rebound as crude again increases faster than ethane prices," he said.

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