Plastics and the tanker industry

Sep 13 2019

Despite the so called 'War on Plastics', their use is still projected to grow strongly over the coming years, largely driven by the emerging economies, where the desire for economic growth often outweighs environmental concerns.

Given that demand for plastics is expected to make up an ever-increasing share of oil demand, understanding the drivers behind this will have ever increasing importance for tanker owners going forwards, Gibson Shipbrokers said in a report.

The good news for the tanker market is that in the short term, petrochemical demand is forecast to grow strongly over the next five years. Illustrating this, according to the IEA, 30% of demand growth between 2018 and 2024 will be driven by demand for plastics and petrochemicals.

If more projects are announced in the short term, then the demand growth could be even stronger come 2024. Beyond the next five years however, the forecast for growth is more uncertain.

BP said in its recent 'World Energy Outlook' that the 'single-largest projected source of oil demand growth over the next 20 years is from the non-combusted use of liquid fuels in industry, particularly as a feedstock for petrochemicals, driven by the increasing production of plastics', However, the oil major also noted that regulatory developments may threaten this growth.

If new regulations are introduced to eradicate the use of single use plastics, then demand growth for petrochemicals could slow drastically. Even with regulatory threats in the future, companies are stepping up investment in petrochemicals, Gibson said.

Before worrying about slower demand growth for plastics, which may take more than 20 years to materialise, refiners and major industrial players are focusing on the greater threat from a slowdown in gasoline demand, which is likely to be squeezed by the rise of electric vehicles and more efficient engines.

The IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlook, under it’s ‘New Policies Scenario’ predicted that whilst there is increasing regulatory action around the use of single use plastics and higher recycling rates, oil use as a petrochemical feedstock would still grow by 5 mill barrels per day by 2040.

Even in the IEA’s ‘sustainable development scenario’, which assumes policy interventions to address climate change, the petrochemicals sector still registers demand growth, whereas demand for transportation fuels and other sectors declines.

Industrial players appear to be aligning their long-term strategies to this view. For example, Reliance Industries recently announced it is planning to invest in the Jamnagar refinery to enable it to produce only jet fuel and petrochemicals in order to extract maximum value from every barrel used. Saudi Aramco has also sought to expand its petrochemical operations through new projects, joint ventures and most notably, its pending acquisition of SABIC.

In short, the tanker market still has some way to go before it is likely to be impacted by the ‘War on Plastics’. However, at some point over the next 20 years demand for gasoline, and perhaps other liquid fuels is expected to slow.

With petrochemicals taking a more important role driving future oil demand, shipowners will need to ensure their investment decisions align with the production strategies of the major industrial players, Gibson concluded.


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