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Analysing economic viability of

opportunity crudes
T
he declining global supply of high-quality
crudes and the rising demand for light
products from China, India and the US have
propelled oil prices to lofty levels. At the same
time, the worldwide consumption of motor gaso-
line, diesel and jet fuel has been growing by more
than 2% per year. This supply/demand imbalance
could be a permanent feature in the foreseeable
future unless a weakening US and global economy
manifests into a worldwide recession. The high
price of crude has prompted many refners around
the world to look for relatively inexpensive, but
low-quality, opportunity crudes.
Opportunity crudes, as defned in this article,
may have various combinations of high acidity
(with total acid number [TAN] exceeding 0.5 or
1.0 mg KOH/g, depending on the defnition
used); high sulphur content (>0.71.0%), nitro-
gen and aromatics; low API gravity (<2628);
elevated levels of vacuum bottoms and high
viscosity. There are basically fve types of crude
available to refners, as shown in Table 1.
However, in light of the current economic
slowdown in the US which, if it spreads to the
rest of the world, could cap international oil
prices the long-term economic
viability of processing opportu-
nity crudes is of crucial
importance. Refners need to
know if the light/heavy spread
will remain wide enough to
justify the expansions and modi-
fcations needed to process
heavy, sour and high-TAN
crudes, and heavy crude produc-
ers need to know that demand
for their feedstock will persist
Adrienne M Blume and Thomas Y Yeung Hydrocarbon Publishing Company
well into the future, as they are making large
investment decisions for projects with projected
lives of 2050 years or more. Other questions
centre around the long-term availability of
opportunity crudes and the competition refners
may encounter for access to these crudes, espe-
cially in light of the rising nationalisation of oil
assets by national oil frms. These concerns will
be addressed, and analysis of the long-term
economic viability of opportunity crudes process-
ing will be provided.
Availability of conventional and unconventional
oil
Although analysts often disagree about the
amount of recoverable oil left in the world, the
availability of opportunity crudes appears to be
quite solid, at least over the medium term. Both
non-OPEC and OPEC crude supplies have grown
increasingly heavy and sour over the past decade,
and the availability of light sweet crude opti-
mal for producing gasoline and other light
products is decreasing. However, opportunity
crudes remain ripe for the plundering. The
incoming refning head of US-based ExxonMobil,
www.digitalrefning.com/article/1000645 PTQ Q3 2008 1
Challenges to refnery heavy oil upgrades are discussed. Demand for heavy
and high-TAN crudes continues to rise as light sweet crude reserves decline
Table 1
Crude type API Sulphur, wt% Bottoms, vol%
Light sweet >30 #0.5 <5060
Light sour >30 >0.5 <5060
Heavy sweet* #30 #0.5 >5060
Heavy sour* #30 >0.5 >5060
Extra heavy (from oil sands and bitumen)* <15 >0.5 >60
*Opportunity crudes
Types of crude available to refners
Sherman Glass, recently estimated, The world
has about three times as much oil to meet future
needs [as] has been used to date. Also, senior
vice president of ExxonMobil Chemical Co Jim
Harris believes projected growth in global energy
demand of 1.3% per year can be easily met, as
only one trillion of the worlds four trillion
reserves of conventional and unconventional oil
have been used.
Meanwhile, consultancy Wood Mackenzie
believes unconventional hydrocarbons, which the
consultancy defnes as heavy oil, tight gas, shale
oil and coal bed methane, may supply more than
20% of the worlds demand by 2025, and poten-
tially have a reserve volume of about 3.6 trillion
BOE. According to the latest geological surveys,
oil sands, or bitumen, which account for up to
66% of the worlds total oil reserves, are currently
found in 70 countries, although about 75% of the
reserves are located in just two nations Canada
and Venezuela. Canadas Athabasca region boasts
at least 1.7 trillion bbl of oil sands reserves, while
Venezuelas Orinoco heavy oil belt holds around
1.8 trillion bbl.
While Canadas political stability and close
proximity to the US provide US refners with
some level of energy security, Venezuelas oppo-
sition to US politics and its efforts to diversify its
supply partners away from the US make the
countrys heavy oil reserves an unreliable source
of feedstock for US refners. However,
Venezuelas heavy crude deposits could beneft
refners in the Latin American and Asian coun-
tries that Venezuela is courting as potential
supply partners. This example refects the grow-
ing complexity of energy partnerships around
the world, especially in light of the feedstock and
fuel diversifcations that are taking place with
greater use of lower-quality crudes and growing
investment in biofuels and other alternative
energies.
Resource nationalism and energy security
The role reversal between international oil
companies (IOCs) and national oil companies
(NOCs) over the past few decades has forced US
petroleum frms to fnd new ways to remain
major industry players, according to discussion
forum RMI Oilfeld. In the 1960s, IOCs had full
access to 85% of global petroleum resources,
while the Soviet Union had 14% and NOCs only
held 1%. However, since then, nationalisation
2 PTQ Q3 2008 www.digitalrefning.com/article/1000645
drives have shifted the balance of power to
NOCs, which control 77% of reserves today.
Although IOCs have been forced to give up
control of large volumes of reserves, they have
been holding strong positions because of the
superior technology and services they possess, of
which NOCs have a need. However, international
service providers (ISPs), which offer technological
expertise to NOCs without controlling production,
have increased competition with IOCs. IOCs still
have unique combination[s] of technology, fnan-
cial backing, market access and operational
expertise...[but] ISP technology is expected to
take the lead in the next few decades, RMI
stated. This scenario will, in turn, lead IOCs to
consider new tracts of investment for the future.
Currently, IOCs are turning to natural gas in an
effort to maintain their profts and asset portfo-
lios. Recent deals include Italian ENIs takeover
of Dominions NG assets in the Gulf of Mexico,
US ConocoPhillips 2006 acquisition of Burlington
Resources, and US Chevrons 2005 purchase
of Unocal.
In light of this growing resource nationalism,
there is expected to be some competition for
opportunity crudes, but not all refners will choose
or be able to afford to make the necessary upgrades
to process these dirtier, lower-quality crudes. Many
will remain reliant on lighter, higher-quality
crudes, whether because they choose to stick to
their current refnery confgurations or because
their budgets are not large enough to accommo-
date heavy oil upgrades. Some refners, such as
Frontier Oil and Valero Energy in the US, who
already possess the ability to refne heavy crudes,
will continue to take advantage of the healthy
light/heavy spread. However, the production of
opportunity crudes is likely to outpace heavy oil
expansions at refneries, at least over the medium
term, as high construction costs and other factors
make these types of project increasingly expensive
and diffcult to carry out.
Challenges to refnery heavy oil upgrades
Although there are several benefts to heavy oil
projects, stricter environmental regulations
requiring cleaner fuels, government urgings to
boost refning capacity, permitting delays and,
perhaps most importantly, soaring projects costs
could discourage refners in the US and else-
where from making such upgrades. Opposition
to heavy oil expansions by environmental and
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citizen groups has also proven to be a factor in
decisions concerning such projects, as processing
opportunity crudes typically consumes more
energy and emits more pollution than processing
conventional crudes, because opportunity crudes
contain larger amounts of sulphur and other
impurities that must be treated and removed in
order to produce clean, high-quality fuels.
Several such examples of NIMBY or not in my
back yard have been seen recently in the US.
BP America, which plans to conduct a $3.8
billion heavy oil upgrade at its 420 000 bpd
Whiting, Indiana, USA, refnery by 2011 that will
allow the refnery to process 260 000 bpd of
Canadian oil sands crude, has encountered
substantial public opposition to the project
because of planned increases in GHG emissions
to the atmosphere and pollution discharge into
Lake Michigan. In response to the public back-
lash, BP announced in October 2007 that it would
continue to adhere to the refnerys original waste-
water treatment permit after making the capacity
addition. However, BP America head Robert
Malone warned that if a technological solution
could not be found to alleviate the planned pollu-
tion increase, the company could be forced to
cancel the project.
In the same vein as BP, US oil frm Marathon
Petroleum is toying with the idea of a $1.9 billion,
15 000 bpd expansion at its 100 000 bpd Detroit,
Michigan, refnery that would enable it to refne
an additional 80 000 bpd of heavy Canadian
crude. In late July 2007, the frm agreed to
purchase Canadian Western Oil Sands Inc for
Canadian $6.5 billion (C$6.5 billion or US$6.2
billion), which will give it access to 2.6 billion
barrels of recoverable bitumen reserves. However,
the proposed expansion at Michigans sole refn-
ery would also raise CO
2
and particulate air
emissions by 30%, which has attracted criticism
from environmental groups and residents. If it
decides to go ahead with the capacity addition,
Marathon plans to buy emissions credits from
industrial frms to offset the rise in pollution. It
also plans to install at least fve air-quality-moni-
toring stations around the facility to warn area
citizens of environmental hazards from excess
emissions, spills or leaks.
Meanwhile, Motiva Enterprises, a joint venture
between Shell Oil Co and Saudi Refning,
announced in September 2007 that the company
would move ahead with its plan to expand its
www.digitalrefning.com/article/1000645 PTQ Q3 2008 3
285 000 bpd refnery in Port Arthur, Texas, USA,
by a massive 315 000 bpd. The project will allow
the refnery to process a total of 325 000 bpd of
heavy sour crude, including Canadian grades.
However, the project was very nearly cancelled, as
its cost estimate has more than doubled since the
start of planning in 2004, from $3.0 billion to $7.0
billion. Yet another obstacle to the expansion came
in the form of environmental groups opposition to
the large increase in emissions that would result
from adding capacity equivalent to a new refnery.
Not wishing to engage in a long, drawn-out battle
with the public, Motiva announced it would donate
funds to community and environmental organisa-
tions and use updated technology to lower certain
types of emissions, such as NO
X
and volatile
organic compounds. The announcement was well
received by the community, and Motiva decided to
move ahead with the project.
Weakening gasoline demand in the US as a
result of economic worries and skyrocketing diesel
demand elsewhere in the world will also encour-
age refners to capitalise on margins for middle
distillates, which in many cases could involve
modifcations for processing heavier crudes. It
typically takes a refnery around six months to
make the operational and chemical changes
needed to produce greater volumes of diesel.
Processing heavy, high-sulphur crudes requires
even more time, as these process units take three
or more years to order and install. However, the
ability to run low-quality opportunity crudes
allows US refners to save on feedstock costs, as
these crudes are priced at a discount to bench-
mark light sweet crude West Texas Intermediate
(WTI).
Projections for the light-heavy crude spread
Canadian oil sands producer Petro-Canada noted
in its 2007 annual report that the international
light/heavy crude spread for Dated Brent and
Mexican Maya had narrowed to $12.67/bbl in
2007 from $13.94/bbl in 2006. However, the
Canadian light/heavy crude spread for Edmonton
Light and Western Canada Select widened in
2007 to C$24.07/bbl (US$23.97/bbl) from
C$22.40/bbl (US$22.31/bbl) in 2006. The
company noted, Canadian heavy crudes sold at
a larger discount to light crude prices, compared
with international heavy crudes, due to Canadian
heavy crude oil production growing at a faster
rate than North American investment to convert
refneries to process heavy feedstock.
1
Nonetheless, the light-heavy crude price spread
is expected to stay wide over the next few years,
which means Canadian heavy crude will remain
a lucrative processing option for refners.
Meanwhile, Japanese Nippon Mining Holdings
expects its plan to construct a 2530 000 bpd
heavy oil cracking unit, likely a delayed coker, by
2011 at its 180 500 bpd Kashima, Japan, refnery
to save 3040 billion/yr (US$288384MM/yr)
in crude expenses at a price spread between
heavy and light oils of just 7080/bbl; the price
spread, as of early May 2008,
is around $1.201.30/bbl.
However, China is the only
Asian nation with signifcant
refning capacity to handle large
volumes of highly corrosive
crude, which will enable it to
seek high-TAN supplies in the
spot market at a sharp discount
to other grades. Chinas greater
utilisation of these crudes will
also have wider implications for
global oil trade, as it will serve
to reduce the differential
between heavy crudes and
lighter, sweeter oils.
Figures 1 and 2 show price
trends for North American,
European and Middle Eastern
heavy crudes from January
through early May 2008. Figure
1 shows that Alaskan North
Slope (ANS) prices have been
on par with those of benchmark
WTI since late February, while
Heavy Louisiana Sweet (HLS)
sold at a $14/bbl premium to
WTI through most of the
period, briefy dipping to a
near-$5/bbl discount at the end
of March. Lost Hills remained
at a steady discount to WTI of
around $4/bbl through most of
the period, although the
discount was seen widening in
late March during the same
time as HLS fell into discount.
Kern River remained at a $13/
bbl discount to WTI through
most of the period, except in
late March and early April, when Kerns discount
narrowed to $46/bbl during a two-week span.
Meanwhile, Canadian Bow River Stream started
out at a $1418/bbl discount to WTI in late
February and March, then narrowed to a $10/
bbl discount at the end of March before swinging
back to a $19/bbl discount in mid-April. Mexican
Maya trailed Bow River Stream by around $45/
bbl, with the latest discount to WTI of $22/bbl
reported in early May.
Figure 2 shows that the Brent and Urals
benchmarks were fairly close through the early
4 PTQ Q3 2008 www.digitalrefning.com/article/1000645
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8rent, UK
Urals, Mediterranean
Arabian Heavy, Saudi Arabia
Oman
|ranian Heavy
Date
Figure 2 Prices for European and Middle Eastern heavy crudes
Figure 1 Prices for North American heavy crudes
part of March, with Urals trailing Brent by
around $2/bbl, but Urals discount to Brent
widened from late March to mid-April to around
$45/bbl. In the Middle East, Arabian Heavy
and Iranian Heavy stayed below the Oman
benchmark for most of the period, although, as
of May, Iranian Heavys discount to Oman had
widened to around $2.50/bbl, while Arabian
Heavys discount to Oman had fallen to an even
steeper $5/bbl after having been on par with the
Oman benchmark in late March.
Demand for opportunity crudes likely to persist
Tightening fuel specifcations and new environ-
mental legislation will require lower sulphur
levels in fuel and a reduction in the amount of
greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted from refneries
and other industrial plants. However, if fuel
demand continues to increase and the differen-
tial between heavy sour crude and light sweet oil
remains steady, these two factors will continue
to spur refnery investments in heavy crude and
bottom-of-the-barrel (BOB) residue processing,
especially delayed coking projects. Catalytic
cracking and hydrotreating/hydrocracking have
also become popular in recent years due to the
increasingly heavy crude slate and the new gaso-
line and diesel sulphur limits. A recent report by
consultancy Research and Markets forecast that
oil sands consumption by refners will jump to
28 200 bpd in 2008 from 23 500 bpd
in 2003, with demand growing by 3.7%/yr.
As far as oil sands are concerned, both
Canadian and US companies have invested heav-
ily in oil sands upgraders, and Canadian
producers are trying to gear their output of bitu-
men, syncrude (synthetic crude), synbit (a
synthetic bitumen blend) and dilbit (a conden-
sate-bitumen blend) toward future refning
trends. Bitumen requires heavy conversion and
is of low quality, making it unsuitable for refn-
eries built to process light sweet crude. By 2015,
Canadian oil output is expected to measure 3.3
million bpd, a substantial rise from 2.5 million
bpd in 2006. Canada sends the vast majority of
its crude exports to the US (99%), along with
smaller percentages to Japan, the UK and other
countries. As Albertas oil sands production
surges, US demand for Canadian oil is antici-
pated to double to 3.1 million bpd by 2015, and
consumption by Canadian refners could rise as
much as 44% to 1.1 million bpd, according to the
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
(CAPP). Canada could see its overall output
double to 5.3 million bpd by 2020. However, if
the current labour shortage and hike in construc-
tion costs persist, production may only rise to
4.6 million bpd by 2020, compared to 2.6 million
bpd in 2006.
In Alberta, a large portion of the bitumen
produced is upgraded into light sweet syncrude,
helping satisfy the needs of refners whose exist-
ing supplies of light sweet oil are dwindling.
Currently, the biggest markets for Albertan
syncrude are the US Midwest and Rocky
Mountain regions (PADDs 2 and 4). In 2005,
70% of Western Canadas crude exports were
delivered to PADD 2, which boasts a large
number of complex refneries. The Gulf Coast
(PADD 3) is another attractive market for
Canadian oil sands producers because of the
complex refneries located there, and the West
Coast (PADD 5) may become more reliant on
syncrude in the future as ANS crude supplies
continue to decline. Additionally, pipeline expan-
sions will allow Canadian crude exports to the
US Gulf Coast to increase over the next several
years.
In Asia, South Korean refners are pumping
hefty investments into heavy oil upgrader (HOU)
facilities that process heavy crude into transporta-
tion fuels in an effort to revive weak refning
margins. Demand for Bunker C, a heavy marine
fuel, has fallen due to environmental concerns,
and companies are looking for ways to upgrade
the heavy oils that comprise 4050% of the refn-
ing process into lighter, more in-demand
transportation fuels, such as gasoline and jet fuel.
SK Corp subsidiary SK Incheon Oil is building a
60 000 bpd HOU in Ulsan, and GS Caltex is
constructing a second HOU facility in Yosu.
Meanwhile, S-Oil plans to build a 150 000 bpd
HOU in the western city of Seosan by 2010. Also,
Indian Oil Corp (IOC) recently announced it is on
the verge of signing a 30 000 bpd sour crude
contract with Angola, as it is upgrading its refn-
eries to process the less-expensive heavy oil. IOC,
which may also source supplies from Venezuela
and Iran, aims to boost its heavy crude refning
capacity to 7075% from currently 60%.
Opportunity crudes and climate change
No analysis of opportunity crudes processing is
complete without acknowledging the environ-
www.digitalrefning.com/article/1000645 PTQ Q3 2008 5 4 PTQ Q3 2008 www.digitalrefning.com/article/1000645
mental challenges posed by these crudes.
Producing, upgrading and processing heavy oils
emits more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
than conventional crude procurement and use,
and this is a major concern for scientists, govern-
ments and citizens alike due to the growing
threat of global warming. Therefore, the neces-
sity of achieving energy security combined with
government pressure to lower CO
2
emissions will
essentially force energy frms to reduce pollution
from heavy oil production and processing.
Emissions-reduction technologies are available,
but they are not yet in widespread use. Crude
producers and refners are still working with
governments and technology providers to come
up with effective, economically feasible solutions
to mitigating GHG pollution at their operations.
The EU uses an emissions trading system that
allots a specifc number of pollution allowances
to each country, although there is promise in the
idea of an upstream carbon trading system,
which would limit emissions at the fuels point
of entry rather than at the point of emission. Oil
major ExxonMobil noted that such a system
would reduce the number of regulated entities
and provide a uniform cost of carbon to the
entire economy.
Canadas environmental plan demands a 20%
reduction in emissions from 20062020 and a
6070% cut through 2050, mainly through the
installation of emissions-reduction technology
and carbon credit trading. However, the
Canadian province of Alberta has implemented a
different set of policies to accommodate growth
in its alternative crude production. The province
is targeting a 14% reduction in GHG emissions
from 2005 levels by 2050, with all cuts being
made after 2020 to allow for a rise in oil sands
output. Alberta will also encourage CO
2
capture
and storage (CCS) over direct pollution reduc-
tions, although the implementation of CCS is
estimated to cost frms as much as $120/ton.
As a technology, carbon capture and storage is
not yet ready for wide-scale commercialisation,
nor is it cheap. However, a number of demon-
stration projects are sprouting up around the
world in the hope that this CO
2
-abatement
method will become widely applicable in the
future. Among CCS initiatives currently in the
works, Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Inc
is leading a consortium of 19 energy frms in a
CCS pilot development dubbed the Alberta Saline
Aquifer Project (ASAP). By the end of 2008,
ASAP plans to have pinpointed deep saline aqui-
fers in Canada that will be capable of storing CO
2

over the long term. In the second phase of the
project, ASAP will design storage sites into which
carbon will be injected. A similar initiative called
Integrated CO
2
Network (ICO
2
N), led by
Canadian Suncor Energy Ltd, plans to develop a
CCS network and pipeline in Alberta.
Additionally, Norwegian oil frm StatoilHydro is
leading a CCS project at its 54 000 bpd Mongstad
refnery to demonstrate and test key CO
2
capture
technologies for national and international
implementation, with a focus on reducing the
costs and environmental risks associated with
CCS. The test centre is expected to begin opera-
tions in spring 2011.
However, unless governments choose to step
in and offer fnancial incentives for CCS and
other emissions-abatement technologies, energy
frms will likely have to bite the bullet and invest
in these technologies on their own. Meanwhile,
the US EIA commented in mid-2007 that, in
order to encourage growth in the small business
of capturing and storing greenhouse gases from
refneries and utilities, nations all over the globe
must work together to set standards and laws,
and develop cheaper technology to support the
practice. The Agency estimates that CCS
programs will be the second-largest contributor
to reducing GHG emissions and global warming
behind energy conservation and ahead of biofu-
els usage.
Analysis of long-term economic viability of
processing opportunity crudes
Analysts generally agree that demand for heavy
and high-TAN crudes will continue to rise, as
long as the light/heavy spread proves viable and
the USs economic woes do not lead to a world-
wide recession that would dent fuel demand, and
thus demand for opportunity crudes. The fact
remains that light sweet crude reserves are dwin-
dling, and heavy oil is quickly becoming the next
logical alternative for many refners around the
globe, especially in light of recent criticism
regarding the environmental sustainability of
frst-generation biofuels. Unlike biofuels, oil
sands-derived crude is a secure source of energy.
It does not rely on unpredictable factors to make
it feasible, and it does not compete with food
supplies.
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Aside from energy security benefts, perhaps
the biggest incentive for refners to focus on rela-
tively inexpensive oil sands and other opportunity
crudes over biofuels is that the feedstocks lie
within their area of expertise. With some modif-
cations, refneries capable of processing only
light sweet crude can be made syncrude-ready,
providing a lucrative opportunity for refners
looking to save on feedstock costs. Availability of
opportunity crudes should not be a problem, as
evidenced by the massive oil sands reserves that
have already been discovered and the existence
of other heavy oil reserves (such as oil shale)
that, while less economically feasible to procure,
are available in case of a supply emergency
further down the road. Also, heavy oil production
is currently outpacing heavy oil upgrades at
refneries around the world, which could prove
somewhat bearish for crude producers over the
short term. But as heavy oil takes a more promi-
nent spot in the feedstock slates of many
refneries, opportunity crude producers are
poised to rake in hefty profts as benchmark
crude prices remain at record highs.
Some competition for heavy oil resources will
be seen due to the rising nationalisation of
energy assets in South America and the Middle
East, as well as competition between ISPs and
IOCs for resources and partnerships. However,
as major consuming nations like the US and
China forge supply contracts and E&P agree-
ments with different partners, and as European
refners largely stick to their current refnery
confgurations or add diesel production capacity,
competition for opportunity crudes will not be
ferce enough to decimate the light-heavy spread.
Therefore, heavy oil upgrades will remain lucra-
tive for refners who can afford them and seek to
incorporate the processing of opportunity crudes
into their long-term strategies.
References
1 Business Environment. 2007 Annual Report. Petro-Canada
website. http://annualreport.petro-canada.ca/en/discussion
/191.aspx (accessed 12 May 2008)
Adrienne M Blume is managing editor with Hydrocarbon
Publishing Company in Southeastern, Pennsylvania, USA, and
has published various articles in the trade press, including PTQ,
as well as having participated in various detailed industry-related
studies. Blume holds a masters degree in English and publishing
from Rosemont College, USA.
Email: ablume@hydrocarbonpublishing.com
Thomas Y Yeung is managing consultant with Hydrocarbon
Publishing Company in Southeastern, Pennsylvania, USA, and has
published various articles in the trade press, including PTQ, as
well as participated in various in-depth industry-related studies.
Yeung is a registered professional engineer in the state of New York.
Email: tyeung@hydrocarbonpublishing.com


www.digitalrefning.com/article/1000645 PTQ Q3 2008 7


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