China’s Petrochemical Boom

By some reports, China is expected to account for 50% of all growth in the petrochemical sector through 2025. As the country rushes to attempt petrochemical self-sufficiency – China remains deficit particularly in ethylene and benzene, as also derivatives, as its domestic demand booms – its petrochemicals sector is reaping the rewards. But there are also risks ahead.

Data for 2017 released by the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation indicated a bumper 2017 for petrochemicals. Revenue rose to US$2.27 trillion while profits jumped by 30% to US$130 billion. International trade represented about a quarter of all revenue, indicating that much of the production and consumption of petrochemicals is taking place domestically. China is already a significant exporter of PTA, and also exports polyethylene and polypropylene, but these numbers will generally play a secondary role in response to booming domestic petrochemical demand.

Some observers have identified China's state edict in 2016 to improve competitiveness in the petrochemicals industry as the reason for the industry's improving bottom line. State-sanctioned and directed mergers bundled major and minor, private and public producers together over 2016 and 2017, creating a network of stronger and unified players. If that has been responsible for the success in 2017, then another state drive might slow things down in 2018.

To deal with the environmental impact of the petrochemical sector, China is mandating a ‘green tax' across the industry to fund anti-pollution schemes. Energy consumption per yuan of output must also be reduced by 8%, CO2 emission by 10% and water consumption by 14% in 2020 from their 2015 levels, targets issued by the National Development and Reform Commission. Scores of plants that now operate within densely populated and growing urban areas must also relocated to more remote areas; some estimates suggest that some 500 ‘toxic' plants must relocated, with 185 in Shandong province alone.

This accelerated environmental drive could see the Chinese petrochemical sector slow down in 2018, as it grapples with additional costs to promote efficiencies. But as always, the Chinese also have an answer to that. If it is getting too difficult to grow wantonly domestically, then why not do it overseas? In the last month, Tianjin Bohai Petrochemical agreed to construct a US$4.3 billion petchems complex in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan, while an unnamed private Chinese firm is building a PP plant in Kharvana, Iran. It may be far from Chinese borders, but will still contribute to the growing strength and clout of China's petrochemicals industry.

China's Petrochemical Industry in 2017

  • Overall revenue US$2.27 trillion (up 12.5%)
  • Overall international trade (export/import): US$560 billion (up 22%)
  • Overall profits: US$130 billion (up 30%)
  • Projected revenue growth 2018: +10%

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