A GTL Gusher by 2020?


LONDON -Even as the lubricants industry braces for the massive slug of API Group II and III base oils coming to market this year, a new wave of refinery construction could soon elbow onto the scene, suggests refining expert Amy Claxton. In addition to the many projects now under way, she predicts six more world-scale Group II and III base oil plants plus three major GTL plants could arrive by 2020.

Global capacity for making Group III base oils will reach about 90,000 daily barrels this year, up sharply from the current 67,000 b/d, she pointed out last week to the ICIS 16th World Base Oils & Lubricants Conference here. Before the year is over, Group III will make up 9 percent of the world’s roughly 1 million barrels per day of mineral base oil supply. Group I will be 57 percent, Group II will be 26 percent and naphthenics 8 percent. But by 2020, this mix will change even more dramatically, Claxton estimates, as even more new plants force out older Group I players.

“The gas-to-liquids era has arrived,” she told the ICIS gathering, “and even more API Group II, II-plus, III and III-plus is coming as well.”

This is fine news for makers of automotive lubricants, Claxton said on Thursday, but others might worry about “how to replace bright stocks, waxes and heavy base oils used in industrial lubricants and process applications, or what to do when our Group I plants all close.”

Claxton, principal of the consultancy My Energy in Hummelstown, Pa., applauded Shell and Qatar Petroleum for successfully inaugurating their joint venture Pearl GTL project in Ras Laffan City, Qatar, last year. Pearl uses Fischer-Tropsch technology to convert natural gas to liquids, some of which is upgraded to base oils.

“Who would have thought it would take 20 years for GTL to arrive? But at last Pearl delivered its first base oils to Houston in 2011, and full production is to come in mid-2012,” she observed. When its second unit streams in mid-2012, Pearl will reach its full capacity to make almost 30,000 b/d of base oils, a mix of 4 and 8 centiStoke Group III-plus quality and a lightweight 3 cSt Group II.

Unfortunately, Claxton warned the London meeting, the flood of new capacity from Pearl and other projects will be very disruptive. “We now have balanced supply and demand, and it’s a great time to be a base oil provider. But with all the new capacity coming, something’s got to give. We will be in an oversupply situation and prices will head down.”

This boom-and-bust cycle – new capacity creating oversupply, which leads to falling prices, forcing out high-cost producers until the market snugs and players build new capacity again – seems to repeat itself every nine to 13 years, she added.

The 2012-2014 timeframe will see at least four Group II and III hydroprocessing plants come onstream. “There have been a lot of other announcements too, but I believe these will get there,” Claxton added, pointing to Takreer-Neste’s project in the UAE; Chevron’s new plant in Pascagoula, Miss.; SK Lubricants and Repsol’s being built in Cartagena, Spain; and Hyundai-Shell’s recent deal for a plant in Daesan, South Korea.

Together these four will add about 60,000 b/d of new capacity by 2014, half of it Group II and half Group III.

“There have been advances in other hydroprocessing paths as well that are going to affect base oil supply,” Claxton continued. “Some of these are smaller plays with higher-cost technologies, such as rerefined base oils and biobased oils from natural sources. These may be subsidized for a while, and the costs could come down as technology advances.” Still, these small-play technologies likely will remain small over the next decade, she predicted.

Larger plays offer more promising economics, she went on, and will start to happen at a faster pace. Theyll include additional Fischer-Tropsch base oils and the upgrading of fuels hydrocracker bottoms.

There are a number of fuels hydrocracker units being installed around the world to make ultra-low-sulfur diesel, especially in Asia and the Middle East. If a hydrocracker’s crude supply is suitable, it’s not a difficult step to add a base oil plant to upgrade the unit’s bottoms, Claxton said. One such plant will stream this summer in fact, a Group III plant being built by partners SK and JX Nippon Oil in Ulsan, South Korea.

“There are 17 active fuels hydrocracker projects going on in 11 countries right now,” Claxton said, “and three of these are judged to have base oil capability.” She expects that double that number of fuels hydrocrackers will be built by 2020, so it’s likely the world will see yet another three bottoms-to-base oil projects, for a total of six.

“Six new plants is as high a prediction as I want to go, and that’s aggressive, probably on the high end of what we’ll see added between 2014 and 2020,” she declared. For best economics, the typical scale for each plant will be around 10,000 b/d of Group II and III.

More boldly, she predicted several GTL base oil plants will join the fray as well. “Shell, Sasol and ExxonMobil all have significant Fischer-Tropsch technologies in their portfolios, and Chevron has a massive technology portfolio for upgrading F-T fluids to base oil,” she said. “These represent decades of time and interest by all these companies. They won’t just sit on the shelf.”

Instead, the majors will try to exploit large shale gas reserves in the United States or massive natural gas reserves in the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe. Several large GTL feasibility studies are under way now in Canada, the United States, China, Uzbekistan and Iran, Claxton pointed out. “No Shell Pearl equivalent plant has been announced yet, but several other F-T plants have been announced with fuels capacity from gas or coal, and I see several where putting a base oil plant on the back end would make sense.

“So, three more GTL base oil plants will be built by 2020,” she forecast, each likely to be on the scale of the Pearl facility.

In all, My Energy expects to see six new hydrocracker bottoms plants making a total 60,000 b/d of base oil and three GTL plants adding another 90,000 b/d; all will be Group II and III. Meanwhile the demand for finished lubricants will be almost flat, “so when you put all this new capacity in, you will have to take the equivalent capacity out,” Claxton asserted. And most of the capacity that closes will be Group I.

By 2020, the global distribution of base oil supply will be 40-30-20-10, Claxton said: 40 percent Group I, 30 percent Group II, 20 percent Group III and 10 percent naphthenics.

This should reassure those who must have Group I, she concluded. “Even with very aggressive assumptions, more than one-third of the pie is going to be Group I.”

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