Richer mix lets NZ pump up the volume

It has a population little different from Sydney's (4.43 million v 4.57 million), but, with Sydney - and NSW - headed for total reliance on refined oil imports, New Zealand is going in the opposite direction to boost its refining capacity.

It has a population little different from Sydney's (4.43 million v 4.57 million), but, with Sydney - and NSW - headed for total reliance on refined oil imports, New Zealand is going in the opposite direction to boost its refining capacity.

Global oil majors have decided they can't make enough money out of refining in Australia and, in the process, we have been reminded that what is in the best interest of large foreign investors isn't necessarily in Australia's interest.

Shell is to close its Clyde refinery, although it is yet to decide just when it will end processing products there. Caltex is headed down the same path it has said it will make its decision known midyear but, by signalling its thinking publicly, it is softening us up for the inevitable blow.

Yet, while Shell and Caltex claim they can't turn a dollar from refining in Sydney - ExxonMobil has closed its Port Stanvac refinery in South Australia - NZ Refining Co is keen to expand, spending $NZ365 million ($284 million) to boost capacity.

NZ Refining produces nearly all of New Zealand's jet fuel, about 80 per cent of its diesel and, more important, about 55 per cent of its petrol.

The upgrade will lift petrol supplies to about 65 per cent of local demand. As well, the upgrade will cut to once every five to six years the need for maintenance shutdowns from once every 18 months at present, which represents a substantial cost saving.

The upgrade is expected to boost refiner margins by about $NZ1 (78?) a barrel, giving it further insulation from Asian competition.

And the irony is, Caltex - via its US parent, Chevron Oil - is a large shareholder in the NZ Refining, as was Shell until it quit retailing in New Zealand a few years ago.

With the limited size of the New Zealand market, NZ Refining was established as a joint venture of several of the oil majors - ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron - and local investors. When Shell sold out, its stake was bought by local infrastructure investor Infratil and the government-owned NZ Superannuation Fund.

Unlike Australian refiners, which are units of the global oil majors, leaving them competing for capital with other parts of a global enterprise, and operating at the whim of decisions of global self-interest,

NZ Refining is independent.

"We're run as a standalone business, not part of a larger business," NZ Refining's managing director, Ken Rivers, told Weekend Business. "There are no competing claims for cash from the upstream business, for example, for drilling in the Arctic or for renewable energy and, as a public company, we are subject to ongoing scrutiny.

"We have a single asset and we control our own purse strings. Everyone has a clear line of sight of what's in the best interests of the business."

As a toll refiner, NZ Refining is not exposed to oil price risk, although it is exposed to movements in the refining margin at competitor refineries in Singapore.

"Multinational companies have pressure to standardise operations across their businesses, ... so we can be more innovative," Mr Rivers said. The downside is NZ Refining is on its own.

"I have to ensure my refinery continues to refine crude here. Other parts of the business can't bail me out, and I can't be covered by exploration, for example."

And, as a sole refiner, customer demand for reliability is high.

"We have less than 1 per cent downtime, and that's well beyond what most other refineries do, of 3 to 5 per cent. It helps us financially," he said, since the more limited downtime boosts profitability.

That pressure to stand on its own means that with a modest refinery, similar in size to Caltex's Kurnell complex, NZ Refining compares well on most counts.

But the divergence is that, while oil majors are reluctant to invest in Australia, they are willing to back an expansion in NZ, which will not absorb their own capital directly, while helping give greater insurance of supply.

"The [oil] majors would say: why, if more [product] is available in Singapore? We would say we're more reliable and cheaper than Singapore," Mr Rivers said.

"In New Zealand, I can make that equation work for us - more reliable, cheaper and cost-effective, and its good for New Zealand it makes [us] more self-reliant."

Half-owned by Chevron Corp, Caltex Australia is a small cog in a large machine. Elsewhere in Australia, Chevron is spending up big to develop offshore export gas projects in Western Australia - Wheatstone and Gorgon - while elsewhere in the region, it has a half share of Singapore Refining Company, which can process 290,000 barrels a day of oil, compared with about 125,000 barrels a day at Kurnell and 110,000 barrels a day at Lytton in Brisbane, which is also under a closure threat.

Earlier plans to expand in Singapore have been shelved, due to wariness about the impact of refinery expansions elsewhere in Asia.

"My personal view is that the majors are moving their portfolio more upstream - oil/gas/shale, to market - rather than downstream, and downstream is focused on growing markets rather than mature markets," Mr Rivers said.

"For example, Shell left New Zealand because as a mature business, it could get get better returns from newer markets."

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