workers at refinery plant

Key Steps For Refiners Ahead of IMO 2020

As IMO 2020 looms, refiners have an opportunity to capitalize both in the short term and the long term.

By Shell Catalysts & Technologies on Mar 2, 2019

Discover low-cost solutions available to refiners to safeguard their competitive position, in response to IMO 2020.

Many refiners remain unprepared for the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) MARPOL 73/78 Annex VI, or IMO 2020. These regulations, which will substantially tighten the global cap on the maximum sulphur content of marine fuel oil, could have a major impact on an ill-equipped refiner’s profitability. However, it is not too late; refiners can implement several low-cost solutions over the next two years to safeguard their competitive position.

Because of these regulations, from 2020 and beyond, refiners can expect demand for high-sulphur fuel oil (HSFO) to fall, demand for low-sulphur fuel oil (LSFO) to increase, and a corresponding price differential between the two to widen. This is because ships will only be able to continue using HSFO if they are fitted with on-board scrubbers. However, on-board scrubbers are costly and it will only be possible to convert a modest percentage of the world’s fleet before the new global cap comes into force. Liquefied natural gas conversions are inappropriate for most ships, so most will turn to LSFO from 2020.

Fortunately, the LSFO–HSFO price differential is likely to close over time as scrubber technology improves and conversion facilities are built. Consequently there will still be a market for HSFO and refiners do not necessarily need to eliminate their HSFO exposure, however refiners would do well to reduce this exposure to retain competitiveness.

Many refiners wonder how they should respond. There is a wide range of technology options available but a rigorous evaluation study must be done to find the most cost-effective option for each refinery. Some of these options are shown in Figure 1. Should a refiner install one of the highest-residue-conversion technologies, such as ebullated-bed residue hydrocracking or slurry-phase residue hydrocracking? For many refiners, these options may not provide the optimum solution, in part because they are extremely capital intensive.

Figure 1: Some of the technology solutions that can help refiners to respond to IMO 2020.
Figure 1: Some of the technology solutions that can help refiners to respond to IMO 2020.

Accessible Version of Residue Conversion Percentage Infographic:

A look at residue conversion percentage, CapEx and ROI Opportunities

The visual shows the different technology integrations available from Shell Catalysts & Technologies for Residue Conversion.

The following technology lineups are shown from left to right visually displaying an increase in CapEx and Residue Conversion Percentage

  • Crude Flexibility – Low CapEx, High ROI
  • Deep-flash VDU – Low CapEx, High ROI
  • SRU Revamp – Low CapEx, High ROI
  • Add Vacuum Flasher Downstream VBU – Medium CapEx, Medium, High ROI
  • SDA + HCU Revamp – Medium CapEx, Medium, High ROI
  • SDA + Residue Gasification Revamp – Medium CapEx, Medium, High ROI
  • Coker Debottlenecking with SDA – Medium CapEx, Medium, High ROI
  • Delayed coker/flexicoker & Gasification – High CapEx, Medium-Low ROI
  • SDA + Ebullated Bed HCU – High CapEx, Medium-Low ROI
  • Residue Slurry HCU – High CapEx, Medium-Low ROI

At Shell Catalysts & Technologies, our substantial owner-operator experience allows us to identify the best responses. The business case for some of the integrated solutions, which often involve revamping existing process units, has been far stronger than for installing new high-residue-conversion technology.

For example, a solvent deasphalting (SDA) unit can be added for comparatively moderate capital expenditure (capex). Simultaneously revamping the hydrocracker can help to reduce HSFO production by almost 50 percent, increase middle distillates yield, and improve crude flexibility.

The combination of SDA and deasphalted oil hydrocracking – or SDA and thermal conversion, another moderate capex response option – has another important advantage: it retains high levels of crude flexibility.

This flexibility is an increasingly important profitability driver for refiners. There are substantial opportunities for refiners to increase margins by including lower-priced, opportunity or niche crudes in their diet. As such, refiners should always evaluate the effect that those investments will have.

Another crucial consideration is the refinery’s back end. When increasing the level of residue conversion, by either revamping process units or installing new ones, the treating and utility systems and logistics infrastructure can be key constraints. Additional capacity is likely to be required for sour water strippers, wastewater treatment plants and, particularly, sulphur recovery units. Fortunately, the development of Shell’s next-generation tail gas treating process, Shell Claus off-gas treating (SCOT) ULTRA, offers a performance step change for minimal investment.

The gestation period of such projects is likely to extend beyond 2020, so it may be too late to initiate a response to reap the benefits of the expected LSFO– HSFO price differential. However, they may be options for the long term, although refiners who have not yet committed to this type of long-term, high-capex investment are likely to delay making an investment decision until the supply, demand, and economic implications of IMO 2020 should become clearer.

What changes could refiners implement before 2020? Among the low-capex, quick-win solutions is Shell’s deep-flash technology, which can help to lift more and better quality vacuum gas oil (VGO) from the vacuum distillation unit and reduce HSFO production. Another popular solution is installing latest-generation reactor internals and catalysts, which can enable the hydrotreating and hydrocracking of heavier and more difficult feeds such as deasphalted oil, heavy VGO and visbreaker VGO, and increase conversion capability.

Another quick-win opportunity is to change the crude diet to include a proportion of opportunity crude. For a typical 200,000-bbl/d refinery, the inclusion of 10 percent of an opportunity crude with a relative discount of $1/bbl could increase the gross refinery margin by roughly $7 million a year. This will typically require no capex.

The importance of first developing a robust investment plan tailored to a refiner’s specific circumstances cannot be overemphasised. One can only identify the optimum solution by taking into account the specific constraints, such as refinery configuration, local factors, and available capital, and by using tools such as scenario planning to help take a view of the future market in which refiners will be operating.

Key takeaways

  • IMO 2020 will cause a price gap to open up between LSFO and HSFO that only the best-prepared and equipped refiners will benefit from, and this gap will close partially over time.
  • To reap the benefits of this price gap, a refiner would need to have already invested in a medium- to high capex solution that suits their particular circumstances.
  • Those that have not could focus on what they can achieve ahead of 2020. From installing deep-flash technology and revamping with latest-generation catalysts and reactor internals through to including low-cost opportunity crudes in the refinery diet, there are many steps for strengthening competitiveness ahead of 2020.