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Petchem Demand Robust as U.S. Feedstock Cost Advantage Fluctuates

Global ethylene demand will grow by about 90 million tons (60%) over the next 15 years, and "the U.S. Gulf Coast is in pole position for this feedstock-driven capacity growth," the CEO of a logistics provider to the chemical industry told a Houston audience Wednesday.

Royal Vopak CEO Eelco Hoekstra said his company is projecting that more than 50 ethane crackers will be built "somewhere in the world. Even if this is an overoptimistic view given today's global uncertainties, nobody doubts our industry will grow significantly," he said at the IHS Chemical 31st Annual World Petrochemical Conference.

Siting of all the new crackers will be driven, in part, by feedstock advantage, Hoekstra said, and the U.S. Gulf Coast has that in spades "...as gas is cheap and readily available," he said.

Right now, though, the U.S. feedstock cost advantage has been diminished by the crude oil price collapse. "Crude oil is down, naphtha is down. North America's ethylene advantage is also down. But have any of the fundamentals really changed? At ExxonMobil, we don't believe so," said Neil Chapman, president of ExxonMobil Chemical Co., at the same conference.

Like Hoekstra, he sees robust demand for petrochemicals and is confident in the North American resource base, driven by unconventional oil and natural gas production. That's why ExxonMobil committed to a second steam cracker at its Baytown, TX, complex, he said.

"Thanks to shale and other unconventional oil and gas, North America has one of the largest resource bases in the world," Chapman said. "That's why we see nearly $160 billion of announced investment...Until recently, the U.S. petrochemical producers were enjoying a gas cost advantage compared to regions that run mostly oil-based naphtha feedstock..."

However, the 70% decline in the price of Brent crude over the last 18 months has curtailed that cost advantage. Chapman said ExxonMobil, unlike possibly some other chemical producers, wasn't banking on the North American cost advantage sticking around forever.

"We designed our Baytown expansion to be resilient over a wide range of feedstock and energy scenarios," he said. "We cannot bank on North American ethane, or any other single feedstock, being cost-advantaged forever. It's not the way the world works."

For that reason, ExxonMobil continues to enhance its ability to run liquid feedstocks.

"We see global demand for chemicals rising by nearly 45%, or 4% per year, over the next decade," Chapman said. "That's significantly faster than the projected growth in global GDP and faster than overall energy demand. Two-thirds of that growth, we anticipate, will be in Asia-Pacific, of which, of course, the majority is in China and India. These countries are forecast to see a three-fold rise in per capita income through 2040."

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