Sinopec prepares for international refinery investment

Sinopec Corp, China’s energy behemoth, is embarking on a strategic overseas expansion initiative to invest in refinery and petrochemical assets abroad, a calculated move aimed at capitalising on its formidable capabilities and substantial financial resources. This ambitious move comes as China’s domestic oil demand approaches a plateau, necessitating a shift toward global expansion.

In a low-key announcement last June, Sinopec unveiled the establishment of Sinopec Overseas Investment Holding, its exclusive platform dedicated to investing in, constructing, and operating foreign refineries. In the ensuing months, the company has been actively assembling a dedicated team and outlining the financial roadmap for this newly formed entity.

Sinopec’s drive to extend its footprint beyond China’s borders is in line with the backdrop of a constrained regulatory environment at home. China has curtailed approvals for new refineries due to sluggish demand growth, existing overcapacity, and the industry’s strategic pivot towards high-value materials and products that align with global energy transition trends.

Zhao Dong, President of China Petrochemical Corp, the parent company of Sinopec, elucidated on the company’s vision, stating that they intend to “amplify their overseas refining and chemical business by harnessing the core strengths of the group.” This strategic endeavour underscores Sinopec’s commitment to leveraging its core competencies for international growth.

A senior Sinopec official further emphasised that the company’s investment decisions will prioritise regions with burgeoning demand and convenient access to feedstock. Notably, Sinopec has been shortlisted to bid for a potentially multi-billion-dollar export-oriented refinery in Hambantota, Sri Lanka. Additionally, the company is reportedly exploring the acquisition of Shell’s refinery and petrochemical assets in Singapore, although Sinopec’s President has recently refuted these claims.

Another avenue of interest for Sinopec is the expansion of the Yasref refinery in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, in collaboration with Saudi Aramco, following a preliminary agreement reached in December of the previous year. These overseas ventures are expected to facilitate the export of Sinopec’s domestic products to international markets, thereby extending their global reach.

Sinopec’s foray into the global arena builds upon its existing overseas investments, including the 400,000 barrels-per-day Yasref refinery and the substantial $10 billion Amur Gas Chemical Complex in East Siberia, achieved through a partnership with Russia’s Sibur.

In contrast, domestic counterpart PetroChina has been notably more active on the international stage, with a portfolio that includes refineries in Singapore, France, Scotland, and Japan, amassed during a shopping spree approximately a decade ago.

Sinopec’s past global endeavours have encountered challenges, notably government-mandated changes to its top management that led to shifting strategic priorities. Furthermore, in 2018, Sinopec was outbid by Swiss commodities trader and miner Glencore in its attempt to acquire Chevron’s South African refinery and fuel network for nearly $1 billion.

As China grapples with shifting energy demand dynamics, with gasoline demand projected to peak as early as 2024 and diesel demand already plateauing, Sinopec’s strategic foray into international markets signifies a pivotal move to secure its position on the global energy stage. With their vast resources and expertise, they are poised to make significant waves in the global energy landscape.

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