As the end of October saw upstream operators release disappointing Q3 results, with Shell in particular announcing record losses, a completely different picture is being painted in the downstream sector. A host of North American refiners, including Tesoro, Valero Energy, Phillips 66 and Marathon Petroleum have seen profits soar as the low oil price has improved margins; WTI cracking margins for Q3 2015 averaged $22.02 compared to $14.01 in 2014.
With refiners benefiting from high margins amidst the oil price decline, the impact on those companies providing maintenance services to the sector is rather more complex. On one side, higher margins are increasing utilisation – Tesero reports that during Q3 their plants were running at 101% of their officially stated capacity – intensifying the level of maintenance required to prevent downtime. Conversely, refiners will seek opportunities to delay large turnaround programs in order to take advantage of the high margins.
This has been apparent as a number of refineries announced delays in their maintenance schedule, with some refiners, such as Cepsa, postponing to January 2016. However, the extent to which refiners are able to delay plans is limited due to both the project lead times, which can be up to 16 months in advance, and the vital nature of maintenance work, particularly when plants are run at an elevated capacity. North America has already seen a series of refinery shutdowns resulting from over utilisation, including the large BP Whiting plant and an explosion at Exxon Mobil’s Torrance refinery, highlighting the importance of routine maintenance work.
Whilst the effects on the downstream maintenance industry are somewhat complex, it is clear that the sector is currently an attractive industry for investment. Despite the prospect of some delays in maintenance work, Douglas-Westwood’s “World Downstream Asset Maintenance Market Forecast 2015-2019” expects the market to remain strong, growing at a 4.8% CAGR between 2015 and 2020. As maintenance remains particularly vital to the smooth running of plants during this period of above average utilisation, the sector is likely to remain relatively sheltered from the industry downturn and struggle that upstream has borne.
Kathryn Symes, Douglas-Westwood
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