Petrochemicals revenues have overtaken midstream sales for SIBUR as the Russia-based producer continues to work on its latest multi-billion dollar capacity expansion.
Midstream has traditionally been SIBUR’s key driver of profitability but the substantial leaps in petrochemicals production capacity in recent years as the ZapSibneftekhim complex continues to bolster output.
“The average capacity for the year was above 80%, close to 82%, and the profitability that we managed to deliver in our petchems segment now exceeds the midstream business, which previously used to be our primary revenue driver,” said SIBUR executive director for marketing, sales, procurement, innovation and business development Sergey Komyshan.
The company has no direct upstream exposure, meaning that it can continue to expand focus on petrochemicals without needing to retire assets or reorganise its operations.
“The midstream business that we run doesn’t own anything in the ground,” he said. “We are adjacent to the oil and gas sector in Russia, buying associated petroleum gas (APG) from oil companies that they produce on the back of their oil extraction, and heavier natural gas liquids (NGL) fractions from the gas companies. So we are dependent on the way the Russian oil and gas sector develops.”
The completion of ZapSibNeftekhim resulted in a five-fold increase in polyethylene (PE) sales in 2020 to 1.3m tonnes and a 52% jump in polypropylene (PP) volumes to 1.1m tonnes, with capacity utilisation at the complex reaching 97% in December.
The completion of ZapSib has been transformative for the company, with olefins and polyolefins revenues increasing 13-fold on a rouble-denominated basis between 2009 and 2020, and volumes increasing over six times.
“We already generate 60% of our EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) from the petrochemical segment and that share will keep growing, because we see even more opportunities to grow our petrochemical franchise,” Komyshan added.
LOCAL, GLOBAL DEMAND
Despite a global trend towards weaker petrochemicals volumes during the pandemic year despite the rally that most of the sector achieved in the second half of 2020, Russian demand for some materials increased, including PP and linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE).
This could be driven in part by increased local availability of material, meaning that issues such as the prevailing rouble weakness against the US dollar can be avoided, according to Komyshan.
“We are inclined to tie this strange development to our project, ZapSib, that made vast new volumes of polymers available coupled with better service, a wider range of grades, faster deliveries, and less transaction risk in terms of buying for roubles domestically rather than importing it for dollars from outside of the country,” he said.
Exports remain the key drive for product from the complex at present, with 70% of material going overseas last year, of which over half went to China, but the company expects to lean less heavily on the country as demand revives elsewhere.
“We will gradually see the share of Chinese deliveries going down as we forecast, and I already see it in our operational numbers this year,” he said.
SIBUR noted this week that it is increasing the proportion of exports to Europe from ZapSib, but China is to remain a growing focus for the company, with the planned Amur Gas Chemicals Complex moving forward.
With Gazprom already developing upstream capacity in the region to exploit the huge undeveloped gas reserves on Russia’s eastern border, SIBUR has decided to move forward with the project which is expected to be the world’s largest polymer production facility.
The decision means that SIBUR is moving straight from a $9bn project into the development phase of a $10bn-11bn project, meaning that the company will have expanded dramatically in the space of a decade, with ZapSib alone doubling Russian polymers capacity.
With the complex to be sited far from any significant domestic urban areas, success of the project tied to the Chinese market, according to Komyshan, project equity is to be split 60/40 between SIBUR and China-based major Sinopec.
Russia has positioned itself as a player in China’s Belt and Road initiative, but petrochemicals complexes have life cycles spanning many decades, meaning that the SIBUR outpost will be reliant on remaining part of the country’s polymer supply chains, even as it invests heavily in domestic supply.
The scale of investment in the project from a key player in China’s chemicals landscape is a vote of confidence in the Amur project’s long-term place as a player in the space, Komyshan said.
“I think it is a clear strategy for our Chinese partner to buy into a competitive project that they believe will find its way into the Chinese market anyway,” he said.
Ramping up its petrochemical sector and the export opportunities for the industry remain priorities for the Russian government, with the oversupply and turbulence of the last half-decade underlining the weaknesses of being a petrostate.
The oil and gas industry has obvious limitations in terms of growth and is the main pillar of the Russian economy, which the government doesn't particularly like both in terms of size and the share of contribution, given the volatility in the oil market,” Komyshan said.
The opportunity to focus more strongly on exports and diversify a little further downstream has existed for decades and been seized on more strongly by Middle Eastern players, and in recent years the Russian government has started to work in a more concerted way on catching up.
“I think what the Russian government is trying to fix now is that decades-old mistake not to go for it. Now they're trying to catch up. I think there is a deep understanding in the government that Russian petchem players can be quite competitive,” Komyshan.
“However, one needs to build new plants to utilise this opportunity. So they decided to structurally shift the government support focus to investment-heavy industries like petrochemicals,” he said.
Many producers have reported substantially reduced demand visibility, even compared to the opacity of client purchasing plans reported by some players in 2019, as buyer habits shift to more hand to mouth deals in the face of the uncertainty of the pandemic era.
SIBUR is no exception, although the way ahead is becoming clearer as 2020 moves forward, according to Komyshan.
“Because of very choppy and unpredictable markets we suffered from the lack of visibility last year a lot, and that lasted until Q3-early Q4,” he said. “It was then when we saw signs of the trend towards recovery: improved margins globally, picking up demand and the revival of demand in Europe and in Russia.”
Ongoing shipping route disruption due to shifts in trade flows during the pandemic have created some opportunities for the company to expand its reach, he added.
Demand has been tight and pricing high for polymers, a situation only intensified by the widespread outages across the US Gulf Coast, providing further opportunities for the company to diversify its geographic spread.
“Global trade flows are being affected quite significantly by the volatility in the freight rates, and we saw several trade routes being distorted, sometimes offering us new opportunities to enter the markets we do not usually serve,” Komyshan said.