* S. Korea, Singapore blend cheap fuel oil with condensate
* Fuel oil-condensate blend cuts residue yield, boosts
high-value products output
* Japan's TonenGeneral processing more, Cosmo considers
buying fuel oil
By Florence Tan and Jane Xie
SINGAPORE, Dec 23 Asian refiners are
increasingly replacing costlier crude oil with a low-value oil
product to produce higher value fuels, in an attempt to control
costs and stem a decline in profitability.
They are buying fuel oil, a cheap residue of the crude
refining process, and blending it with condensate, a super light
oil, for processing at their plants. By doing that, the refiners
are able to cut input costs, curtail output of the loss-making
residue and produce more high-quality oil products.
The shift toward cheaper feedstock may dent Asia's crude oil
demand and cap price gains, especially as Japan, which usually
pays the highest spot premiums for crude imports, gears up to
increase the use of the alternative raw material.
South Korean refiners have already increased imports of
straight-run fuel oil (SRFO), which enables easier blending and
processing, and demand from China and Singapore has remained
robust. Japan's import demand will grow as the closure of
another two crude distillation units (CDUs) by March will
tighten domestic supply.
"It should be a long-term trend, as long as crude prices
remain expensive and fuel oil is relatively cheap," said a South
Korean trader, referring to the use of fuel oil as feedstock.
Oil refiners face weak margins for turning crude into
products over the next five years as capacity additions are
forecast to outpace demand growth.
Refiners say profit margins are lagging the rise in Middle
East crude prices, forcing them to look for alternatives.
The official selling price of Abu Dhabi's flagship Murban
crude has averaged $6 above Dubai quotes between September and
November, hitting the highest since May 2008. But the $18 profit
from making a barrel of gasoil - one of the most profitable oil
products - is a far cry from the $40 seen in 2008.
Russian SRFO, commonly known as M100, blended with Qatari
deodorised field condensate could be $2 a barrel cheaper than
Murban, traders estimated. Costs could be lowered further if
Iranian fuel oil and condensate were used, a trader said.
By processing the blend at their plants, refiners can reduce
output of fuel oil and increase the yield of more valuable
products such as naphtha and gasoil.
Fuel oil makes up almost half of the output when refiners
process Middle East crude. Refiners stand to lose $9.63 this
year for producing each barrel of the residue fuel with Dubai
crude versus $5.67 in 2012, Reuters data showed.
The wide price gap is helping to draw more users.
Japanese refiner TonenGeneral Sekiyu KK has
recently bought more SRFO and is also considering another
alternative feedstock - vacuum gas oil, a source familiar with
the matter said.
Domestic rival Cosmo Oil too is considering buying
SRFO as raw material, for the first time, another source said.
Forecasts of weak refining margins may encourage refiners to
continue processing more of the fuel oil-condensate blend as
long as the residue's price gap with crude stays wide.
Asia's average monthly imports of SRFO, at 350,000-450,000
tonnes, however, are small compared with the 70-80 million
tonnes of crude it buys, according to Thomson Reuters Oil
Top SRFO suppliers Russia and Iran will be two key wild
cards in ensuring the price gap remains for refiners to continue
processing straight-run fuel oil.
Russia is expected to keep SRFO exports steady as new
conversion units will come online only from 2015, energy
consultancy JBC Asia's managing director Richard Gorry said.
And any increase in Iranian oil exports following continued
progress of talks with world powers to end Tehran's decades-old
nuclear dispute may weigh on prices.
Traders and refiners are also watching China's demand for
the product. Beijing has allowed two more independent refiners,
often called teapots, to import crude next year.
That will mean teapots, which typically process fuel oil to
produce more expensive fuels, could start using crude oil in
China's SRFO imports were largely steady at about 1.1
million tonnes in the first 10 months this year, despite rising
crude imports by its largest independent refiner, ChemChina,
suggesting strong demand for the fuel.
"We expect the crude import quota for independent refiners
to have a meaningful effect only in the second half of 2014,"
JBC's Gorry said, citing logistical and regulatory hurdles faced
by new importers that could keep China's SRFO demand steady.
(Additional reporting by James Topham in Tokyo; Editing by