Increased potential risk of new coal-to-olefins projects

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China Drying News On November 30th, Deloitte Consulting Co., Ltd., a global consulting company, released the market analysis report of “China Coal to Olefins Industry - Exploring the Next King of Coal Chemical Industry”. The report said that since the “Eleventh Five-Year Plan”, coal-to-olefins have been established as one of China's priorities for the development of new types of coal chemical industry, and the diversification of olefinic raw materials has further promoted the rapid growth of the industry. However, while pursuing business opportunities, companies entering the market should not overlook potential risks and challenges such as falling oil prices, overcapacity, and carbon taxation.

The report proposes that in order to realize the strategy of diversification of raw materials, all parties in China are actively exploring the production routes of coal-to-olefins (CTO) and methanol-to-olefins (MTO), thereby providing beneficial supplements for the oil-to-olefins route. While actively promoting the development of the coal-to-olefins industry, the Chinese government has also adopted a series of measures to prevent overheated and disorderly development in the industry. The National Development and Reform Commission strictly controls the approval of coal-to-olefins projects and strengthens the regulation of the industry.

It is reported that the National Development and Reform Commission is currently conducting key supervision on key issues such as site selection, construction speed, and technology selection of new coal-to-olefins projects, aiming at preventing energy consumption and environmental damage that may result from the blind development of small projects. However, for the methanol-to-olefins project, the country has not issued any special regulatory measures, and the future development trend remains to be observed.

This reporter learned that in 2011, China's coal to olefins industry set off a commercial boom, Shenhua Baotou, Shenhua Ning Coal, Datang Duolun and Sinopec Central Plains 4 sets of devices have been put into production. According to the “Coal Deep Processing Demonstration Project Plan”, from 2012 to 2015, China will focus on promoting 15 coal chemical upgrading demonstration projects, of which at least five are coal-to-olefins projects. Major investors will include Sinopec and Shenhua Group companies. Sinopec has started four coal-to-olefins projects in Inner Mongolia, Anhui, Henan, and Guizhou and has made substantial progress, with a total olefins production capacity of 3.1 million tons.

At present, there are many companies that enter coal-to-olefins, methanol-to-olefins fields, including coal companies and power companies, in an independent or cooperative manner.

According to Guan Yang, head of Deloitte China Chemical Industry, “it is expected that the annual production capacity of China's olefins will reach at least 56 million tons by the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan period, but the uncertainty of the new methanol-to-olefins project may cause further expansion of production capacity. With the pressure of new production capacity and slowing demand growth, overcapacity may occur in the olefins industry in the next few years, and after 2015, excess capacity may also increase.”

To clarify the economics behind the Chinese coal to olefins project, Deloitte Chemicals team has constructed a simplified financial model to analyze the profitability of the project. Initially, China's coal-to-olefins project has a good profitability. From April 2011 to April 2012, the estimated average profit rate of the main business was around 35%. Compared with the traditional oil (naphtha) route, the coal-to-olefins route has a certain cost advantage. However, the profitability of coal-to-olefins projects is greatly affected by fluctuations in oil prices and coal prices. A sensitivity analysis of the financial model shows that when oil prices drop to 80 US dollars/barrel, the coal-to-olefins project may suffer a total loss.

In addition, there are other series of challenges and risks that coal-to-olefins require. Such as coal price and quality stability, water resource acquisition and cost, reliability and maturity of methanol-to-olefin technology, and sales capacity and downstream integration level. According to calculations, companies that have coal resources will be 5% to 10% less expensive than other companies.

Guan Yang’s warning: “The carbon tax is a big factor that affects the CTO project. According to some academic journals, if a carbon tax is levied, the additional carbon tax for coal-to-olefins can be up to 2,000 yuan compared to the oil route. RMB/ton, which will offset the cost advantage of the CTO route.”

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