Time to buy an oil refinery?
The financial woes of Petroplus and the temporary closure of the gates at the firm’s Coryton oil refinery has once again put the spotlight on the supply of petrol and diesel in the UK. The picture it reveals gives some cause for concern.
Between them, the eight refineries in the UK produce about 76 million tonnes of oil-related products, ranging from road fuels, through kerosene, jet fuel and LPG to things like bitumen. The only trouble is that the demand for these products is closer to 85 million tonnes, creating a shortfall which has to be met by imports.
More specifically domestic petrol and diesel production amounted to some 45 million tonnes in 2010, split very roughly – in weight and volume terms – 50/50. But where as we actually produce about 20% more petrol than we consume (with the excess exported, predominantly to the United States) there is a diesel deficit of around five million tonnes and that has to be brought in from overseas, predominantly from Russia and India. (India is gearing up for the road transport boom that is coming its way, but while it waits for this to happen it is sending its over-supply to the West.)
As far as resilience of supply is concerned, it is estimated there is probably a week’s worth of fuel in storage tanks. But this buffer is based on normal levels of consumption. In the face of panic buying the reserves would be used up much faster.
In theory you might think that controlling the supply of oil products is a licence to print money. But those who do it for a living beg to differ. In the past year two of the eight refineries have changed hands; one more is on the market; and a fourth has just come off the market after eighteen months because of a failure to find a buyer.
According to the UK Petroleum Industry Association (UKPIA) – which represents companies including BP, Esso, Shell and ConocoPhillips who between them supply 90% of the petroleum products sold in the UK – globally the “demand growth for oil will remain strong through to 2035, largely from developing economies, but is forecast to fall in the UK and other OECD countries.”
And the UKPIA would also argue that whoever is making money out of the financial hardship imposed on drivers at the pumps it is not necessarily their members. In the first part of last year – leaving aside taxation – there was less than a 7p gap between the price at which petrol left the refineries and that at which it was sold to the public. Out of that 7p the retailers had to meet the costs of storage and distribution, and running a filling station.
The spread for diesel was about 5.5p.
It seems that now might be a good time to buy a refinery at a knock-down price, but if you believe the UKPIA – hard though it might be to believe – don’t expect it to make you rich.