You’re an oil refinery manager, somewhere in Europe. You can sell diesel for $570/t, or ethylene for $1,120/t. Even given higher costs for ethylene, petrochemical margins are looking a lot stronger than refining margins. So, which are you going to produce?
At a recent refining conference in Brussels, Italian refiner Saras’ managing director, Dario Scaffardi, extolled the virtues of big data and digitisation to a packed auditorium.
The possibilities, he said, are huge. Maintenance activities, process control and commercial marketing all fall under its umbrella. Digitisation has a role to play in simulation, additive manufacturing, 3D manufacturing and robotics, and in using virtual reality to predict how a unit will run — and when it will fail.
As the first quarter’s results begin to roll in, it is already clear that Europe’s refiners have enjoyed a strong start to this year. But how long will the good times last?
In northwest Europe, reference margins for Hungary’s Mol, Poland’s Lotos and the Czech Republic’s Unipetrol are all up on the year. The story is the same in the Mediterranean region for Spain’s Repsol, while Portugal’s Galp yesterday upped its benchmark margin forecast for 2017 by 50¢/bl to $3/bl, following a strong first quarter. Total has also reported stronger first-quarter margins, as have BP and Finland’s Neste.
The icy blast of the 2008 financial crisis, a high-cost base, fierce competition from new capacity in the Middle East and Asia, downward demand trends because of stagnant population growth and greater engine efficiency, perverse tax regimes, and the rolling thunder of environmental legislation. To survive as a refiner in Europe requires constant vigilance and frequent reinvention.