New marine fuel rules to boost diesel prices for at least a year, analysts say

Houston | Reuters — Global prices for diesel and marine fuels should rise by October ahead of a January switchover to new, very low-sulphur marine fuels, and remain higher for at least a year as refiners shift production to make more of the new fuels, analysts said.

Marine fuels containing no more than 0.5 per cent sulphur by weight, down from the 3.5 per cent currently used, to power ocean-going vessels will be required for ships without exhaust scrubbers on Jan. 1, under the International Maritime Organization (IMO) 2020 standard.

In addition to the 0.5 per cent-sulphur fuel, called Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLSFO), shippers can use marine gas oil with a sulphur content of 0.1 per cent to replace marine fuel containing 3.5 per cent sulphur, called High Sulphur Fuel Oil (HSFO).

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Some analysts expect a sizeable price jump as ocean shippers and fuel sellers begin stocking up, but warn existing refining capacity could fall short. Demand for bunker fuel was 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2018.

“The industry is not ready,” said Kurt Barrow, an IHS Markit consultancy vice-president, who forecasts a “sizeable” price increase for diesel.

“You’re not going to build enough new refining equipment nor add enough scrubbers” to meet initial requirements for VLSFO, he said.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in report in March that shift in petroleum product pricing may begin as early as mid- to late 2019, with the effects on prices to be most acute in 2020, and then to moderate after that.

The average spot U.S. Gulf Coast ultra-low sulphur diesel (ULSD) prices for bulk orders could reach over $2.12 a gallon in the second half of this year and rise above that level in 2020, according to the IHS base forecast, Barrow said (all figures US$).

On Monday, the Gulf Coast spot market price for ULSD was $1.778 a gallon. The average spot price for U.S. Gulf ULSD in the first five months of this year was $1.926 a gallon, according to Refinitiv Eikon.

IHS’ forecast also expects the spot price of global crude benchmark Brent to reach an average above $67 a barrel between June and the end of this year. On Monday, the spot market price for Brent in London was $65.81 a barrel.

The spot price is for immediate delivery of a commodity, in contrast with the more-often quoted futures price, which is for a specific delivery at a future date.

The price rise will benefit refiners that have spent billions of dollars gearing up for the change. Plants that can maximize output of low-sulphur fuels such as marine gas oil “could see their margins surge,” according to a Boston Consulting Group report released last month.

It forecast high price spreads for IMO 2020-complaint fuels over sulphur-rich fuels lasting 18 months in two of its three uninterrupted conversion projections.

Net cash margin per barrel may climb over $10 in 2020, from about $3.80 a barrel now, IHS’s Barrow said.

Price increases could moderate, especially if the U.S.-China trade dispute weakens economic growth. Bank of America analysts, who this year projected refiners could see a $25 a barrel diesel margin in the fourth quarter from IMO 2020-compliant demand, now say the U.S.-China trade war “threatens to derail” that robust forecast by depressing economic growth.

Bonanza for some refiners

Analysts forecast demand for IMO 2020-compliant marine fuel should reach between 1.6 million bpd and 2.7 million bpd as shippers begin loading storage tanks and clearing vessels of existing bunker fuels.

Over the past several years, refiners have invested $100 billion to produce low-sulphur fuels, said Susan Grissom, chief industry analyst at trade group American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM).

Chevron Corp. and Marathon Petroleum, the largest U.S. refiner, this month said they are ready to supply IMO 2020 fuel. Chevron now has fuel available for testing, and will have continuous supplies in the market by late September.

The potential IMO 2020 bonanza has lured investors ArcLight Capital Partners and Freepoint Commodities to pour $1.4 billion into an idle St. Croix, Virgin Islands, refinery, to process 200,000 bpd of crude, and begin supplying the marine fuel by late this year.

U.S. refiners operating complex plants with hydrocrackers and hydrotreaters that remove sulphur from distillates are positioned to profit from selling IMO 2020 fuels, analysts at Tudor Pickering, Holt and Co. (TPH) said in a March report.

Demand for low-sulphur fuels could double earnings in 2020 from 2017 levels for complex refiners like Marathon and Valero Energy Corp, TPH said.

Such companies are “probably best positioned for the change” to low sulphur-fuels, said Gabriel Collins, a fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“There is a lot of optionality because of their complexity,” said Collins.

— Erwin Seba is a Reuters correspondent in Houston.

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