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Energy markets are awakening to climate risks. The debate around the energy transition has shifted to whether one will occur to when it will happen and what it will look like.

And yet global energy demand continues to grow. Oil remains essential to the economy and is becoming further embedded into everyday life through petrochemical products, despite the rapid acceleration in the public’s ambitions around sustainability.

Oil companies are responding by writing off long-cycle investments and moving into alternatives. Governments are continuing to tighten regulations on a range of transport fuels, increasingly pushing refiners towards cleaner, lower sulfur products and biofuels blending. As road fuels evolve, other sectors such as aviation and shipping will continue to look for economic alternatives, while the shift towards low sulfur fuels increasingly puts the oil and petrochemical sectors in competition for feedstock.

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Feeling the heat

Global energy demand continues to rise as public pressure mounts on governments and companies to adopt stronger environmental and social policies.

Climate concerns reached a fever pitch last year as teen activist Greta Thunberg warned a “change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Change has certainly happened around the public’s desire for sustainability – the awareness of the impact of carbon emissions on health and the environment, the willingness to adopt new technologies that use energy more efficiently, and the ambition to find radical new solutions to fuel the modern economy.

Change has also happened in boardrooms, as socially conscious investors increasingly demand to know that company profits are not coming at the expense of the environment, workers’ well-being or the overall health of society.

"The challenge for the industry going forward is to find a way to recognize what might happen if you no longer need oil as a fuel, but you increasingly need it as a building block"

Madhav Acharya
ARPA-E, US Department of Energy

Time to turnaround

Refiners are having to adapt to meet future fuel demand as gasoline and diesel growth slows, while aviation and petrochemical sectors become more significant.

The refining industry has shown itself to be adept and flexible in the past, reacting to and overcoming whatever market conditions it confronts.

The last few decades have brought remarkable changes operationally as the industry has striven to cut costs and remain profitable, while at the same time investing in increased complexity. This will help set the future direction for the industry as petrochemical feedstock demand growth will continue to outpace the ascent of the need for transportation fuels, as well as other refined products.

"S&P Global Platts Analytics expects world oil demand growth to slow down in the years ahead due to efficiency improvements, and technological and regulatory change"

Claudio Galimberti
S&P Global Platts Analytics

Rules of the road

Road fuels are evolving across the world as countries target air pollution by setting tougher gasoline sulfur standards and looking to blend in more renewable fuels.

The road fuels market is set to evolve as refiners adapt to optimize gasoline production, governments require lower sulfur content, blenders face higher biofuel mandates and new cars require higher octane.

The transition to cleaner road fuels is evident in Europe’s gasoline market as nations move toward 10% ethanol content in gasoline. Meanwhile, US refiners face challenges ahead for both major road fuels, diesel, and gasoline. And in Asia, developing economies’ embrace of lower sulfur limits will have a major impact on trade flows.

Finding a better blend

Non-crop feedstocks stand to benefit from governments’ shift towards carbon-intensity targets, while traditional crop-based biofuels are expected to continue to play a role.

Carbon-reduction targets are taking center stage in government discussions about the future of biofuels policy around the world, as volumetric goals seem to be a thing of the past. This is changing feedstock supply and demand trends.

Biofuels programs have historically focused on spurring higher blending into transportation fuels. But as more countries pledge to meet climate accords, newer programs are agnostic toward biofuel and feedstock, as long as the finished products meet or beat requirements.

"Road vehicles have an average 10-year lifecycle so widespread electrification of transportation is some distance off"

Angel Alberdi
European Waste-to-Advanced Biofuels Association