The bunker industry expects the marine fuel market to become more fragmented and complex after 2020 as stricter emission controls come into force, according to speakers at the S&P Global Platts Mediterranean Bunker Fuel Conference in Athens this week.
The industry is trying to assess the impact of the International Maritime Organization's decision in October to cut the sulfur content in marine fuel from 3.5% to 0.5% in three years. From January 1, 2020, shipowners will be required to switch to a cleaner, more expensive alternative or install emissions-cleaning scrubber technology on their vessels.
Delegates at the conference saw a more fragmented market emerging as shipowners pursue a range of options in the wake of the new rules while trying to avoid a sharp rise in costs - including buying gasoil-based fuels, desulfurized fuel oil, and LNG. Some might even ignore the new rules altogether, speakers said.
"Will we all be using the same 0.5% sulfur fuel? No, we wonít," marine fuels consultant Robin Meech said Thursday. "The shipping industry, if it doesn't have a policeman, will do whatever is cheapest."
Meech said he expected a lot of non-compliance with the new regulations for a few years after 2020 because of insufficient supply of 0.5% sulfur bunker fuel. He forecast a rapid pick-up in fuel oil demand from ships with scrubbers, from around 10 million mt in 2019 to 100 million mt by 2025.
The IMO's decision "served only as marking the beginning of an unprecedented transformational stage," according to Cem Saral, CEO at bunker trader Cockett Marine Oil. The lower sulfur cap may lead to disruption throughout the supply chain, including forcing some refineries to change their crude slates and putting pressure on the storage industry as well, he said.
Jean Jose Metey, commercial and development director at Greece's Aegean Marine Petroleum, also pointed to a more complex market, saying that refiners might only start to invest in desulfurization units after 2020 after they get an idea of the market.
Aegean's general manager Gregory Robolakis also doubted supply would be sufficient.
"Many of us in the bunker industry are not entirely convinced that the global demand for 0.5% sulfur bunker [fuel] can be met by 2020," he said. "The sulfur change will undoubtedly bring some [novelty to] the bunkering world."
But others were more confident that the refining industry could respond to the new demand. Giacomo Rispoli, executive vice president of Italian oil company Eni, sounded a positive note on the feasibility of refiners meeting the tougher regulation.
"We already removed the sulfur from gasoline and diesel to now less than 10 ppm," he said. "Now is the time for bunker fuel, for further and significant reduction of SO2 emissions."
Rispoli said that following years of research and investment in upgrading the bottom of the barrel, Eni was well placed to meet the lower sulfur regulation in 2020 even while using cheaper sour crude grades, and was already capable of producing more than 400,000 mt/year of 0.5% sulfur bunker fuel at its Sannazzaro refinery.
Just after his presentation, a fire at the refinery shut down production at its EST, or Eni slurry technology, unit Thursday.
"We are using Basrah Light, Kirkuk, Iranian crude," he said. "We buy some sour crudes around [Dated] Brent minus $5-7/b, but in the future, I think the discount will be larger. The low sulfur crudes will be used by the operators that didnít invest in upgrading."
McKinsey consultant Tim Fitzgibbon said the changes in demand could be advantageous for the refining sector.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, demand growth for oil products has been slower, maximum of about 1%/year, he said. Growth in global refining capacity has outpaced demand for oil products at about 1.1%/year leading to overcapacity and forcing some simple European plants to close.
As such, the 2020 regulation of a lower sulfur content in marine fuels will be a shot in the arm for the refining sector, he added.
"2020 will be a fairly positive effect," he said. "We'll see higher gasoil demand, higher utilization rates, but oversupply of heavy fuel oil. We think about 75% of HSFO [marine] demand will move into some form of distillates, whether pure marine gasoil or some sort of blend."
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