Jurong island refineries, oil firms enjoying boost

Cheaper crude means lower feed-stock costs and higher margins, say analysts

Heavy industrial concerns at the Singapore Petrochemical Complex on Jurong Island. PHOTO: ST FILE

The plunging oil price is creating huge problems in many sectors but the refineries and petrochemical companies on Jurong island are enjoying a huge boost.

Cheaper oil - it is down more than 70 per cent since June 2014 - translates to lower feed-stock costs and higher margins, say analysts.

Ms Anu Argawal, vice-president for chemicals at market data provider Argus Media, tells The Straits Times that the drop in crude prices has been beneficial to Singapore as an oil importer.

"Refineries have been operating at high rates across the world to cater to the robust petrol demand, which has responded strongly to lower (crude) prices," she says, noting that production margins have been strong.

Integrated energy firms have also seen a reduction in prices for key petrochemical raw materials like naphtha, which has fallen from US$900 a tonne in September 2014 to below US$350 a tonne now.

"So companies like Petrochemical Corporation of Singapore, ExxonMobil and Shell continue to see profitable operations."

Ms Ng Bao Ying, managing editor of Asia Petrochemicals at Platts, notes that the outlook for Singapore's petrochemicals sector this year remains "stable to strong", with oil prices set to remain under pressure for at least the first six months.

Low oil prices, for instance, will support polyethylene margins for local producers in spite of low Asia demand, says Ms Ng.

She notes that polyethylene, which goes into plastic consumer products such as bottles and containers, saw strong production margins last year.

But not all is rosy. Jurong Aromatics Corporation (JAC), which ran a $2.4 billion petrochemicals facility on Jurong island, bore the brunt of the oil price slump. The plant has been idle since December 2014, and JAC went into receivership in October last year.

For firms such as speciality chemicals firm Lanxess, which adjusts its selling prices according to the change in raw material prices to "remain competitive", falling oil prices have not been advantageous.

In fact, its sales revenue fell 4.3 per cent in the third quarter last year, compared to 2014, says country representative Georges Barbey. But its operating profit, excluding exceptional items, rose 12 per cent due to currency gains and savings from a realignment programme.

But challenges remain, says Ms Argawal. For example, besides petrol, refineries also produce diesel and fuel oil, which have seen "tepid demand" in line with the slowdown in the industrial and commodity sectors in Asia.

"On balance, the refining sector is doing well... (But) there will be headwinds... as Chinese refineries are expected to start exporting more volumes of refined products like diesel."

She says the same goes for the chemicals sector, especially as demand from China, the biggest consumer, continues to wane.

Ms Ng voices similar sentiment, noting that lower feedstock costs are "just one part of the entire picture" for petrochemical producers.

"On the demand side, factors such as the health of downstream demand, global economies, could impact overall requirements for petrochemicals," she says.

Mr Damian Chan, executive director of energy and chemicals at the Economic Development Board, says Singapore needs to "stay nimble and pre-position ourselves for when the oil price recovers".

He expects investments this year to be "moderate", given the uncertain global economic conditions and the cyclical nature of the energy and chemicals industry.

"However, growth momentum across the chemicals value chain remains strong," Mr Chan says, citing German speciality chemicals maker Evonik Industries, which unveiled its expanded oil additives plant last May, and Japan's Sumitomo Chemicals, which launched its urban farming research and development project in November.

"(This is) a sign of companies' continued confidence in using Singapore as a conduit to capture regional growth opportunities," he says.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2016, with the headline Jurong island refineries, oil firms enjoying boost. Subscribe