COLUMN-Will shale gas decimate China's toy makers?: Clyde Russell

Thu Mar 28, 2013 1:33am EDT

--Clyde Russell is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.--

By Clyde Russell

LAUNCESTON, Australia, March 28 (Reuters) - Such is the impact of the shale gas revolution in the United States that it's quite possible that babies born today will no longer play with plastic dolls and cars made in China.

It's almost become a fait accompli that China is the world's factory, but the early warning signs that this may be changing are starting to show.

The advent of cheap natural gas in the U.S. is threatening to displace expensive naphtha in the production of petrochemicals, the key building blocks for plastics, synthetic fibres and solvents and cleaners.

While the shale gas boom is certainly no longer a secret, up to now its main impact has been in displacing coal in power generation in the U.S., and making inroads as both a heating and transport fuel.

While the U.S. is planning to export some of its shale bounty as liquefied natural gas, in effect it is already exporting more energy in the form of coal, which has helped keep Asian prices soft even in the face of record Chinese and Indian imports.

The same sort of dynamic is likely to start hitting the Asian petrochemical sector in the next few years, as U.S. output ramps up on the back of cheap natural gas and producers from India to China struggle to compete given their reliance on oil-derived naphtha.

Sinopec Corp., Asia's largest refiner, admitted that it has been caught off guard by the advent of U.S. competitors using cheaper feedstock.

"This is something we did not expect before," Wang Tianpu, Sinopec's vice chairman and president, said March 25 at a briefing to announce the company's results, which saw a 12.8 percent slump in profits in 2012 from the year earlier.

Sinopec will strive to lower its petrochemical costs by using less naphtha and optimising the product mix, Wang said.

The problem for Sinopec, and other Asian producers, is that while this may help at the margins it's not going to be enough to meet the threat of cheaper U.S. petrochemicals.

While shale gas may become available in China, widescale production is still several years away and is unlikely to be as cheap as U.S. supplies anyway.

There is the possibility of cheaper LNG, but even this is unlikely as the market for the super-chilled gas is expected to remain tight for the next few years, even allowing for relatively small amounts of U.S. exports.

This means the existing major producers supplying Asia, namely Qatar, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia, are still going to be able to charge oil-linked prices for LNG, thus meaning it will be no cheaper than naphtha as a feedstock for chemicals.

There is also the option of using gas liquids such as propane and butane as a feedstock, but these are also derived from crude production and are priced accordingly.

The prospect of coal gasification also holds promise, but even if this were to prove economically viable, which is by no means certain, it will take at least a decade to build any plants of sufficient scale to displace naphtha.

Which means Asia petrochemical producers are stuck with naphtha for the foreseeable future.

Benchmark Tokyo naphtha closed at $938 a tonne on Wednesday, and although the price has eased in recent weeks, it is 284 percent higher than the low reached in November 2008, during the global recession.

In contrast, natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange closed Wednesday at $4.068 per million British thermal units, down about 43 percent from November 2008.

Naphtha has also managed to maintain its premium to Brent crude in a fairly narrow range since the 2008 financial crisis, and is currently around the mid-point at $120.65 a tonne.

What this shows is the enormous advantage natural gas users in the U.S. are getting compared to Asian petrochemical producers.

It's little wonder that Dow Chemical, the largest U.S. chemical maker, announced March 18 it intends to build several plants on the Gulf of Mexico using shale gas as a feedstock.

It joins Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and others in expanding capacity in the U.S. as they bet cheap natural gas is here to stay.

Of course, ultimately it won't just be Asian petrochemical producers that suffer, it will be the downstream industries that use plastics and fibres as well.

For items that are mainly plastic, such as children's toys, it isn't a stretch to see U.S.-based factories once again becoming cost competitive with China.