No-deal Brexit won’t sound death knell for UK refiners

Despite speculation that a no-deal Brexit would have a severe impact on the UK refining industry, analysis by Wood Mackenzie indicates that while the sector’s dynamics would shift and margins will narrow, it would not be crippled.

The UK government plans to remove the tariff on gasoline imports, which under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules would mean the removal applies to all imports, regardless of country of origin. Meanwhile, UK refineries would receive less for their gasoline exports, with this being taxed at the approximate rate of 5%.

Heitham Tolba, Principal Analyst, European Refining and Product Trade, Wood Mackenzie, says: In this case, UK refineries would see their 2019 net cash margin (NCM) decline by an average of just $0.45/b. However, if tariffs are raised on all export destinations, domestic prices could fall. This is because while it will be more expensive to place barrels overseas, exporters still need the differential to make exports worthwhile.’

‘In a worst-case scenario, domestic gasoline prices would also decline by an approximate rate of 5%. The average 2019 NCM of UK refineries would fall by about $1.25/b, so a decline in earnings of around 30%. Nevertheless, all refineries maintain a positive NCM in our 2019 forecast.’

He adds: ‘On paper, the premise that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the UK would be awash with cheap imports and a 0% import tariff would hit domestic refiners hard, sounds feasible. But in reality, there is limited independent import infrastructure in the regions where the refineries are located. Where it does exist, it tends to be small and would not be able to import the volumes required to seriously affect UK refineries. Any impact would be on the marginal barrel.’

‘In those UK regions which are already solely supplied by imports, such as north-east England or the Thames, a 0% import tariff should make fuel cheaper. Suppliers could extend regional supply from these assets, but the extent to which these could affect refineries’ supply envelopes would quickly become constrained by road delivery logistics. Most independent import terminals also lack rail or pipeline connectivity, constraining their ability to supply any cheaper imports to other regions and pressure refiners’ inland markets.’

Tolba says that imposing a zero tariff on imports would see a reshuffle of gasoline imports into Europe. Russia and Belarus would likely divert their gasoline exports from the Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp (ARA) hub, sending them directly. They would do this as direct export into the UK would be tax free, while deliveries into Europe would be taxed at the European Union’s current 4.7% tariff on fuel imports. Conversely, imports from the ARA hub to the UK would decline as this diversion takes place, meaning that the net change in trade is likely to be minimal.

‘Russia only sent about 7.5% of its total gasoline exports of just under 3.4mn t/y to Northwest Europe (NWE) in 2018. Most of this went to the Netherlands and was redistributed from there,’ he comments. ‘Belarus sent about 60% of the 2.2mn t/y of gasoline it exported in 2018 to the Netherlands, according to our estimates. Again, these volumes were distributed further from the Netherlands. About 40% of the UK’s total gasoline imports are sourced from the Netherlands, with much of these volumes originating from Russia and Belarus. However, a significant increase in the share of gasoline imports coming from Russia and Belarus in to NWE is unlikely, thanks to a lack of pipeline infrastructure and the high cost of transporting gasoline to destination markets by rail.'

Wood Mackenzie notes that Russian gasoline exports, which make up just 2.7% of their total product exports, are sent to Caspian markets via rail or truck, as domestic prices make this profitable. These deliveries are also tax free as most of the Caspian consumer countries are members of the Eurasian Economic Union. It is therefore highly unlikely that the near-60% share of total Russian gasoline exports would be railed greater distances in order to increase exports to the UK.

Belarus, on the other hand, already sends the bulk of its gasoline exports to NWE, with the remainder primarily going to supply the Ukrainian market. Earlier this year, Belarus’ BelOil said it was looking to diversify its gasoline exports, as it does not view the European market as being especially lucrative. Instead, it intends to try to increase exports to Africa and the Americas.

In response to the analysis above, UKPIA Director-General Stephen Marcos Jones, told
Petroleum Review: ‘The UK refining sector operates in a global marketplace. With margins already under considerable pressure for our domestic refineries, the acknowledgement by industry analysts that the current “no deal” tariff schedule would put even further pressure on UK refiners supports the industry’s concerns about the inadvertent distortion of competition between the UK industry and competitors abroad.’ 

He continues: ‘Each year the downstream oil sector makes significant capital investments, which are justified by an investment case based on sustainable and variable margin levels, regardless of where assets may be located. Added to this, UK refining companies are focusing on the long-term, with major opportunities available to support the UK’s transition to a low carbon economy. These opportunities require considerable investment.’

‘To support investment to sustain both current operations and future low carbon ambitions to help achieve “net zero”, domestic refiners need a level playing field with other competitive markets, as well as confidence and certainty undermined by the proposed tariff schedule.’



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