Earlier this month, Royal Dutch Shell pulled the plug on its Convent refinery in Louisiana. Unlike many oil refineries shut in recent years, Convent was far from obsolete: it’s fairly big by US standards and sophisticated enough to turn a wide range of crude oils into high-value fuels. Yet Shell, the world’s third-biggest oil major, wanted to radically reduce refining capacity and couldn’t find a buyer.
As Convent’s 700 workers found out they were out of a job, their counterparts on the other side of Pacific were firing up a new unit at Rongsheng Petrochemical’s giant Zhejiang complex in northeast China. It’s just one of at least four projects underway in the country, totaling 1.2 million barrels a day of crude-processing capacity, equivalent to the UK’s entire fleet.
The Covid crisis has hastened a seismic shift in the global refining industry as demand for plastics and fuels grows in China and the rest of Asia, where economies are quickly rebounding from the pandemic. In contrast, refineries in the US and Europe are grappling with a deeper economic crisis while the transition away from fossil fuels dims the long-term outlook for oil demand.
America has been top of the refining pack since the start of the oil age in the mid-nineteenth century, but China will dethrone the US as early as next year, according to the International Energy Agency. In 1967, the year Convent opened, the US had 35 times the refining capacity of China.
The rise of China’s refining industry, combined with several large new plants in India and West Asia, is reverberating through the global energy system. Oil exporters are selling more crude to Asia and less to long-standing customers in North America and Europe. And as they add capacity, China’s refiners are becoming a growing force in international markets for gasoline, diesel and other fuels. That’s even putting pressure on older plants in other parts of Asia: Shell also announced this month that they will halve capacity at their Singapore refinery.
There are parallels with China’s growing dominance of the global steel industry in the early part of this century, when China built a clutch of massive, modern mills. Designed to meet burgeoning domestic demand, they also made China a force in the export market, squeezing higher-cost producers in Europe, North America and other parts of Asia and forcing the closure of older, inefficient plants.
“China is going to put another million barrels a day or more on the table in the next few years,” Steve Sawyer, director of refining at industry consultant Facts Global Energy, or FGE, said in an interview. “China will overtake the U.S. probably in the next year or two.”
But while capacity will rise is China, India and the Middle East, oil demand may take years to fully recover from the damage inflicted by the coronavirus. That will push a few million barrels a day more of refining capacity out of business, on top of a record 1.7 million barrels a day of processing capacity already mothballed this year. More than half of these closures have been in the U.S., according to the IEA.
About two thirds of European refiners aren’t making enough money in fuel production to cover their costs, said Hedi Grati, head of Europe-CIS refining research at IHS Markit. Europe still needs to reduce its daily processing capacity by a further 1.7 million barrels in five years.“There is more to come,” Sawyer said, anticipating the closure of another 2 million barrels a day of refining capacity through next year.