Global bunker fuel costs could rise by up to US$60 billion annually from 2020, in a full compliance scenario, when the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) 0.5 wt% sulphur cap for bunker fuels kicks in.
Fuel oil, which is high in sulphur content, has traditionally been used by the shipping industry as bunker fuel. In 2017, global demand for high-sulphur fuel oil stood at over 70% of overall bunker fuels.
With the implementation of the IMO regulation in 2020, shippers will have to consider a switch to alternative fuels, such as Ultra Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (ULSFO) or marine gas oil (MGO), or install scrubbers, a system that removes sulphur from exhaust gas emitted by bunkers.
Iain Mowat, senior research analyst, EMEARC refining and oil product markets, at Wood Mackenzie, said: “Installing scrubbers may be an economically attractive option. Although there is an initial investment, shippers can expect a rate of return of between 20% and 50% depending on investment cost, MGO-fuel oil spread and ships' fuel consumption. However, the penetration rate for scrubbers could be limited by a number of factors, including access to finance, scrubber manufacturing capacity and dry-dock space.
“Switching to MGO is a more costly solution, and in full compliance, would probably see freight rates increase, perhaps by around $1 a barrel.”
Demand from the bunker fuels market will total about 5.3 million b/d in 2020, according to Wood Mackenzie forecasts.
Based on pure ULSFO refinery streams, available ULSFO volumes in 2020 will total about 1.2 million b/d. This could be boosted by further blending ULSFO with vacuum gas oil (VGO) streams, but VGO is a valuable feedstock for the production of other lighter refinery products, and may not be readily available.
Mr Mowat said: “It is likely that MGO will help meet additional demand from the shipping sector. Wood Mackenzie estimates that this will see MGO demand rise by over 1 million b/d in 2020 in our base case outlook. Meeting this demand will require higher crude runs with residue upgrading units, particularly in the US and China, supporting an uplift in refining margins.
“While there is a risk that this fuel specification change could be disruptive, the anticipated market reaction could benefit refiners with deep conversion/distillate oriented configurations. It also provides refiners, particularly in the US and China, the opportunity to capture the value of their ULSFO component streams and increase their share of the global bunker market.”
He added: “Some refiners should see better profit margins as incremental demand for MGO rises, pushing up its price. Higher refining runs, required to meet additional MGO demand, could potentially push global gasoline market into surplus weakening gasoline prices. This could mean that the gasoline pain for some refiners could be more acute than the impact of weaker HSFO prices. Overall, we expect a material impact on refining economics post IMO and refiners must ensure they have a robust IMO strategy in place.
“We also expect a shift in bunkering locations based on compliant fuels availability. Singapore, for example, could potentially lose some of its market share for bunker fuels to China as shippers look for alternative locations with a surplus of compliant fuels. China, with ample MGO supply, is well positioned to attract shippers.“
New greenfield upgrading investments from refiners are unlikely to be purely driven by IMO regulation and there is a need to look at longer-term rationale and strategic fit of these projects. Structural shifts in the fuel oil and gasoil markets may result in better economics, but that needs to be re-evaluated. For refiners choosing not to invest, the focus should be on infrastructure to capture the opportunity from their existing configuration and internal streams.