China in midst of oil refinery boom

Updated: 2013-11-19 07:44

By CAROLINE BERG in New York (China Daily USA)

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China's voracious oil appetite is now a bygone phenomenon, industry forecasters say. While demand is cooling down, however, China appears to be dominating another part of the oil world: refining.

"China has been in the middle of a major expansion boom in the refining sector, and there's a lot more coming down the pipe," said Antoine Halff, head of the Oil Industry & Markets Division at the International Energy Agency (IEA). "This is a major transformation."

On Monday, Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy hosted a discussion led by guest speaker Halff, who outlined key findings from both the IEA's annual Medium-Term Oil Report and monthly Oil Market Report, which he edited.

The discussion focused on the current status of the global oil market, particularly on the interplay of oil supply and geopolitics; the evolution of demand; the transformation of refining, transportation and storage sectors; and what all those developments mean for the global oil-supply chain, oil prices and energy security.

Halff said the oil refining industry, which helps process and refine crude oil into useful products like gasoline, is experiencing significant change. Refining capacity is expanding much faster than supply is coming from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and also is exceeding global demand, he said.

"[The refining industry is] moving from smaller refineries that used to be very close to the immediate market to very large refineries that are increasingly export driven and have the global reach that no longer cater to their immediate surroundings," Halff said. "Most of this growth is forecast to come from China."

Although two refinery projects in China have been put on hold in the past two months, Halff still voiced confidence.

"We don't expect that all the projects that have been approved in China will come to fruition on time," he said. "Some may be delayed, some may be cancelled, but we generally assume that once a project gets approved it tends to stick."

Growth in China, as well as in India and the Middle East, poses a challenge to the older refining industries, particularly in Europe where at least 15 refineries have been closed since 2008, Halff said.

In addition to significant developments in its refining business, Halff said China's demand for natural gas for transportation purposes is expected to increase. Whereas demand in the US, which is also increasing, is driven by economics, Halff said China's motivation would be more environmentally minded.

"Beijing needs to clean up the air," he said. "[Natural] gas is a very good candidate to replace oil to clean up the air to some extent."

Although growth in demand for natural gas will be strong in both China and the US, Halff said it will remain marginal compared to demand for oil.

As for risks in the market, Halff said China is the biggest wild card.

"Chinese forecasts seem to vary, especially in the oil market," he said. "Each month, because of the volatility in Chinese data, us [IEA] forecasters tend to extrapolate from current conditions."

Due to uneven statistics, the Chinese economy's current conditions are also a monthly gamble. Halff said the IEA's view is generally that the Chinese economy will slow down, and become more consumer and export oriented.

"We also assume that the Chinese government will support policy that will shift some of the demand from oil to natural gas, especially from coal to natural gas," he said. "We see some shift from oil to gas in China in a way that would really make a difference [in global market forecasts]."

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