China gas heating crisis leaves fertiliser makers in the cold

Workers inspect pipelines at a natural gas facility run by Sinopec in Dazhou, Sichuan province, China on Nov 1, 2017.
Workers inspect pipelines at a natural gas facility run by Sinopec in Dazhou, Sichuan province, China on Nov 1, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China's campaign to heat millions of homes this winter by natural gas has left fertiliser producers short of supplies and profits, an industry association said, with urea and ammonia plants halving their operating rates from a year ago.

The feedstock crunch has tightened supplies and boosted prices of fertiliser components in the world's top agriculture market, and the trouble may carry into spring planting.

Chinese fertiliser and chemical industry associations are considering an appeal to the government to lower natural gas prices once winter is past, to allay the effects of the supply shortages, according to two officials from the groups.

"We are losing lots of money every day," said Mr Huo, a manager at a major gas-based urea and compound fertiliser producer in north-western China.

He declined to give his full name or identify his company due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Mr Huo's company had to halt production of urea and synthetic ammonia last month to help ensure supplies of natural gas to households in the north.

"Prices of urea and synthetic ammonia went up significantly... We need to buy these raw materials now," Mr Huo said.

"We also still need to pay maintenance fees for the machines and salaries for the workers. The loss is severe."

Gas-based ammonia and urea plants usually limit operations during winter and ramp up when gas supplies are ample, but this winter, shortages have been worse than expected.

"In previous years, we were also asked to limit usage but suspension was incremental... This year, we were asked to basically shut all lines," Mr Huo added.

Operating rates at gas-based nitrogen fertiliser plants have plunged to just 15 per cent, down from about 31 per cent at the same time last year, data from the China Nitrogen Fertiliser Industry Association (CNFIA) showed.

Chinese urea prices as of Wednesday were at 2,044 yuan (S$420) per tonne, the highest in four years. Synthetic ammonia has jumped 8 per cent to 3,242 yuan a tonne in the past 30 days, according to Zhuochuang, a commodity consultancy based in Shandong province.

"The supply gap in natural gas is hitting gas-based urea producers harder this year. Many plants may not reopen once they halt production," said Mr Gao Li, vice-secretariat of CNFIA, adding that this could pull down fertiliser supplies during spring planting.

CNFIA said oil majors like China National Petroleum Corp and Sinopec should sell gas at cheaper prices in the second and third quarter of the year to help fertiliser producers survive.

The association is also working with China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation on a plan to submit to the government that will include a suggested price cut and a total volume of gas to be on special offer, the officials said.

Meanwhile, the plant where Mr Huo works remains shut.

"We are still hanging in here, but I don't know how long we'll be able to last," he said.