This is the third of a five-part special report on China's small independent refiners. Our team conducted an extensive tour of the Shandong-based refining sector to gauge the direction it is headed and what it means for global oil markets. Shandong's independents have come a long way, having driven China's and global oil demand growth, but they also face new challenges as the country's overall refining sector evolves.
Oil markets have not seen the last of Shandong's independent refiners.
They have a tenacious history of survival, and will battle it out both in the domestic and international markets as China's refining overcapacity is increasingly exported.
Traders expect China's growing product exports to underpin gasoline and gasoil trade flows in Asia, much like the emergence of refining hubs in Singapore and India did in the past.
China has gone from being a net fuel importer to one of the world's top ten refined product exporters in 2018.
Its total gasoil, gasoline and jet fuel exports rose 277% to 46.08 million mt (925,000 b/d) between 2012 and 2018, data from General Administration of Customs showed. For 2019, S&P Global Platts Analytics expects exports to reach an estimated 54.5 million mt (1.09 million b/d).
That's nearly a tenth of its crude imports, and roughly as much as Saudi Arabia's or India's exports, and far more than Japan -- all regions where refineries cater to export markets.
S&P Global Platts expects China to add around 900,000 b/d of new refining capacity in 2019, taking total capacity to about 17.38 million b/d, with another 1.82 million b/d under construction.
China's current CDU capacity has equaled that of the US, the world's largest, at 18.2 million b/d, according to Platts Analytics. As domestic fuel demand weakens on the back of a slowing economy, pollution control measures and falling vehicle sales, the only outlet for the surplus is exports.
Also in the Spotlight on Shandong Series
- New petchem complexes threaten China's oldest refining cluster
- Independent refiners and the mystery of Asia's blended crudes
- Are crude import quotas a boon or bane for China's independent refiners?
- Are China's independent refiners a shrinking market for global crude suppliers?
SHANDONG AND THE BOHAI BAY RIM
China's new refining capacity is heavily concentrated on its eastern coast, a highly industrialized region called the Bohai Bay, which incidentally supplies nearly a third of the country's oil production.
This coastal region includes Shandong, the third-biggest provincial economy in China and home to up to 80% of independent refiners, and its neighboring provinces where the Hengli, Rongsheng and Shenghong groups have built their petrochemical complexes.
The Bohai Bay rim is on track to become a world-scale downstream hub similar to Europe's Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp, or the US Gulf Coast, according to the IEA's projection in its 2019 report. It estimated the region's combined oil refining capacity at 7.9 million b/d by 2024, close to the US Gulf's 9.6 million b/d, and 7.5 million b/d in Europe's ARA hub.
"The share of the Bohai Bay Rim in total Chinese refining capacity is about 43%, and will increase to 48% in 2024, compared to the US Gulf Coast's 49%," the IEA wrote, adding that the region is 75% dependent on imported crude oil, which further drives trade flows, storage and blending businesses.
China's coastal provinces together account for 73% of its installed refining capacity, despite being only 16% of its territory, and 45% of its population, it added.
Meanwhile, Shandong's landlocked independent refiners and the petrochemical complexes are fighting for market share in domestic fuel retailing.
In June, when integrated private refiner Hengli Petrochemical (Dalian) ramped up operations to 110% and flooded the provinces with gasoline, independent refiners found their product had nowhere to go amid stagnating demand.
The full extent of the glut will hit in 2020 when Zhejiang Petroleum and Chemical's 400,000 b/d capacity is fully operational. Shandong's independents hope that NOCs will boost exports instead of adding to the domestic turf war.
China's net exports of gasoline are expected to average 375,000 b/d in the fourth-quarter, up from an average of 330,000 b/d over the first three quarters, JY Lim, oil markets advisor at Platts Analytics, said.
"On a year-on-year basis, there will be a rise of 168,000 b/d in Q4 2019, up from an average increase of 12,000 b/d over the first three quarters of this year," he said.
Lim said Asia Pacific's year-on-year demand is expected to increase by 200,000 b/d in the fourth-quarter, up from 140,000 b/d over the first three quarters of this year, partly due to a weaker base in 2018. This should help absorb China's exports.
PRODUCT EXPORT QUOTAS
Currently, only five state-owned oil giants -- CNPC, Sinopec, CNOOC, Sinochem and China National Aviation Fuel -- are awarded quotas to export refined products.
Shandong's independents were granted export quotas in 2016, but less than 54% were used due to high logistics costs. Beijing revoked the quotas and products had to be sold via state-run companies.
As the fuel glut builds up, both Shandong's refineries and the petrochemical complexes expect Beijing to award product export quotas. In mid-2019, officials from the state planner National Development and Reform Commission had visited selected independent refineries to gauge their export capabilities, refining sources said. But it remains uncertain what the official position and export strategy is.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Commerce had issued, by September 2019, 56 million mt of product export quotas to national oil companies, which reflected a 16.7% or 8 million mt increase from 2018. Refiners say this may not be enough to ease current overcapacity.
"Unless Beijing allows increased oil product exports, some independent refining capacity will be weeded out in coming years, slowing China's crude imports," a general manager with Hengrunde Petrochemical, a Shandong-based refiner, said.
Hongrun Petrochemical, ChemChina and Hengli are the handful of independents able to export refined products through state-run Sinochem and China National Aviation Fuel, who have part-ownership in them. Most other independents are not so lucky.
In the long run, there are plans to further open up China's refining sector, but for now export quotas are their only option.
Part Four of this series will look at the issue of crude import quotas, why it is critical for Shandong's independent refiners and how quotas could be impacted by Beijing's future economic policy.
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