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What shipowners, refiners, and traders should know about IMO 2020

New global limits on sulfur content for marine fuels will have a significant impact on fuel markets. Our forecast for 2020 shows the biggest challenge will be overcoming uncertainty.

Despite early talk of a possible delay, IMO 2020 will take effect on January 1, 2020. 1 Once implemented, global bunker fuel will be limited to 0.5 percent sulfur content unless ships have scrubbers installed, far lower than the current limit of 3.5 percent. An additional carriage ban, which prohibits ships from carrying fuel oil with a sulfur content greater than 0.5 percent unless they have scrubbers, will go into effect on March 1, 2020. Ships in regions with sulfur emission control areas (SECAs), such as Europe and North America, are already required to meet an even stricter sulfur limit of 0.1 percent; therefore, IMO 2020 will have a smaller effect on shipowners in these regions.

The new regulations will reshape fuel markets, especially in the short term. We’ve summarized analyses of recent trends to create forecasts for how shipowners might respond in two areas: scrubber installation and fuel switching. Scrubber installation has only recently gained momentum, and this slow start means that IMO 2020 compliance will initially rely on switching to very-low-sulfur fuel oil (VLSFO) or marine gas oil (MGO). Fuel switching and the additional demand for lower-sulfur fuels will also lead to changes in the global refining market, which can expect higher refinery utilization in 2020.

Of course, shipowners’ decisions in the coming months will directly affect refiners. As the implementation date gets closer, the primary challenge for traders and refiners will be overcoming widespread uncertainty about how to move forward. The traders and refiners able to create the most value will carefully consider their strategic options, including producing more VLSFO, taking advantage of existing bunkering businesses, focusing on trading and wholesale marketing, investing in scrubbers or power generation to diversify, or increasing storage.

Lagging scrubber installation

Shipowners were reluctant to install scrubbers before mid-2018 because of both the financial viability and the logistics of the installation process. However, installation gained strong momentum during the second half of 2018 and the first half of 2019. The order book increased from approximately 1,600 scrubbers in September 2018 to about 3,700 scrubbers in September 2019 (Exhibit 1). The resulting economies of scale have made scrubber economics more favorable, with payoff periods ranging from one to three years for a large ship with a light-heavy differential of between $15 and $23 per barrel. 2 In addition, limited shipyard space has not yet bottlenecked shipowners in installing scrubbers, though it could still become an issue as momentum picks up.

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Our forecast assumes approximately 3,000 scrubbers will be installed by 2020, accounting for nearly 800,000 barrels per day of high-sulfur fuel oil (HSFO). This includes both open-loop scrubbers, which cost less yet discharge waste into the water, and closed-loop scrubbers, which capture waste but also require waste removal. While there have been debates on banning open-loop scrubbers in coastal waters, the overall effect on fuel demand would be minimal: a less than 5 percent reduction in HSFO demand. In fact, ships could simply comply with coastal regulations by using MGO and then switch to open-loop scrubbers after leaving coastal areas.

Given more concrete guidelines for fuel oil nonavailability reports and carriage bans, we assume that noncompliant ships (those that burn HSFO without scrubbers) will represent just 8 percent of the total bunker demand in 2020. 3 That number is expected to drop to less than 5 percent by 2025.

Balanced fuel switching

Given the projected level of scrubber investments, IMO 2020 compliance will have to rely mostly on switching fuel to either to VLSFO or MGO—at least initially. The actual mix remains to be seen, but we expect a significant amount of both fuels.

VLSFO will be priced lower than MGO but may be riskier in terms of engine compatibility and bunkering availability, especially if shipowners aim to stick to a single brand. The concern among shipowners regarding VLSFO is that mixing different VLSFOs from different producers can block filters and transfer lines, leading to serious engine problems. 4 Refiners will therefore be required to make this new blend of fuel oil with a sulfur content of 0.5 percent. Many refiners have already been developing and testing these new fuel oil blends ahead of the regulation’s start date to work on engine compatibility and consistency concerns.

As several issues will not be fully resolved by the start of 2020, we expect the first few months after the transition to be volatile. Shipowners will therefore move between VLSFO and MGO, depending on their level of comfort or concern about the new fuel quality and relative price levels.

However, as these issues are resolved, we expect shipowners to favor VLSFO as the low-sulfur fuel to comply with MARPOL, shifting the VLSFO–MGO split from roughly 50-50 in 2020 to 75-25 in 2025 (Exhibit 2). That said, MGO will still be used in SECA regions to meet their 0.1 percent sulfur limit, representing roughly 1.4 million to 1.6 million barrels per day of MGO demand through 2035.

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Although alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), are being introduced to the marine bunkering market, they will continue to make up only a small share of total fuel demand because of limited infrastructure support.

Impact of compliance on fuel markets and refiners

IMO 2020’s changes to the bunker fuel market can potentially affect fuel oil markets overall. High-sulfur bunker demand currently makes up almost 50 percent of total global residual fuel oil demand. And global bunker demand is 70 percent HSFO, 28 percent diesel or MGO, and 2 percent other fuels (such as LNG, gasoline, or kerosene).

Shifting bunker fuel demand from HSFO to a combination of VLSFO and MGO will increase overall oil demand in the short term while severely cutting demand for HSFO. In turn, increased MGO or VLSFO demand by shipowners will increase crude runs by 250,000 barrels per day. As a result, all regions will experience higher refinery utilization, pushing markets to simpler marginal configurations and higher margins in 2020. Cracking margins across regions will see a boost in 2020 due to increased growth in distillate demand. And more complex refining processes, such as coking, will see an even higher jump (Exhibit 3).

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With higher MGO demand, the global refining market will be tighter for diesel and result in more excess gasoline in the short term. There will be a higher premium for diesel from 2020 to 2022, as diesel–gasoline spreads widen initially and then return to levels indicating a more balanced market after a few years.

Combined with higher crude runs, the loss of HSFO demand from bunkers will send the global residual fuels market into oversupply in 2020 and 2021, forcing excess resid to find a home in power generation. HSFO will then price at substitution economics versus natural gas, which will lower resid prices and widen the light-heavy differential.

Finally, additional refinery capacity, increased supply of VLSFO, and greater installation of scrubbers will all eventually contribute to a more stable market. While refinery utilization and margins will be higher in 2020, they will start to dip in 2021 as capacity additions and slower demand growth start to offset the initial MARPOL impacts.

Strategic opportunities for traders and refiners

Despite changing fuel markets and increased regulations, MARPOL presents strategic opportunities for traders and refiners in the next few years. Those able to identify and secure demand can create a competitive advantage, particularly in 2020.

Players with strong trading and wholesale marketing can benefit from an ability to blend low-sulfur resid and make VLSFO. However, making VLSFO will require additional tankage and higher logistical costs as low-sulfur streams must be segregated from high-sulfur streams. Traders and marketers able to find a home for high-sulfur resid will also have an advantage. Companies with bunkering capabilities will have the opportunity to gain new customers, as shipping companies are expected to favor a specific company or brand across the globe to avoid compatibility problems. However, such consolidation will require fuel to be consistent across facilities.

Refiners that have made conversion investments, specifically in coking and hydrocracking, should see higher profits in the early 2020s. Given the lead time on these types of projects, recent and current investment decisions will likely see little benefit from MARPOL. At the same time, traders or refiners could see opportunities to diversify investment in competing sectors, such as in scrubbers or power generation. Last, investing in storage capacity may be a good move to potentially manage higher MGO demand, more diverse fuel supplies with different resid, or MGO blends.

The opportunities and challenges for refiners will depend on their configuration, such as how much conversion and hydrotreating they have, as well as their current production of LSFO.

Simple refineries, such as those with low conversion and limited hydrotreating, will have the option of either shifting the crude slate to reduce HSFO production or finding the best home for the HSFO they continue to produce. Shifting to crude that is lighter, sweeter, or a combination of both should not be difficult; however, prices for premium grades will rise as players compete to produce VLSFO, resulting in more demand for light sweet crudes. This suggests that the strategy of shifting crude slate will at best be value neutral. Refiners that continue to make HSFO will need to find the best available home for it—likely requiring active development of new customers, such as switchable power users, that have not been consuming HSFO now but may switch based on favorable economics. Another alternative could be to segregate heavy, high-sulfur resid and sell to a refiner with spare conversion and hydrotreating capacity under a term agreement.

More complex refineries have the same options as simple refineries—as well as the potential to reduce the production of HSFO by taking advantage of their flexibility from the conversion capacity. To the extent possible, all complex refiners should try to maximize the utilization of conversion and capability, capturing value from a combination of reduced HSFO production; increased VLSFO production; or the use of heavier, high-sulfur crude, which will see a price discount. Investing to increase conversion or hydrotreating, other than through very quick and inexpensive debottlenecking, will likely not be feasible for refiners over the next few years. Beyond that, the likelihood that the market effect of IMO 2020 will go away is quite high.

About the author(s)

Emily Billing is a consultant in McKinsey’s Houston office, where Tim Fitzgibbon is a senior expert.

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