HOUSTON — On the pain chart, the task facing Joe Myers and Graham Harris at this year's Houston petrochemical conferences fell somewhere between an unmedicated root canal and driving your freshly painted, cherry-red, 1966 Ford Mustang into the back of a dump truck filled with sandpaper and steel wool.
Myers, North American polypropylene business manager for BP Amoco Chemicals in Alpharetta, Ga., and Harris, an industry consultant with Houston-based CMAI Inc. each had the unenviable task of discussing the world PP industry.
Myers spoke at DeWitt & Co. Inc.'s World Petrochemical Review, and Harris spoke at the CMAI World Petrochemical Conference. Both events were held March 24-25 in Houston.
Each speaker had to contend with an industry awash in too much capacity and not enough profit.
``The message is mixed at best, since demand growth will be offset by capacity growth,'' Myers said.
Although Myers pegged annual growth in PP demand at a healthy 7 percent through 2005, he pointed out that 3 billion pounds of material added in North America alone in the next 21/2 years will equal four to five years of demand growth.
``If all of these projects come on, it could take several years for producers' profits to improve,'' he said.
Although BP Amoco is contributing to the deluge by adding 550 million pounds of capacity in Alvin, Texas, during this quarter, Myers said that expansion will be absorbed by market growth. Expansions slated for late 1999 and beyond will be more problematic for the industry, he said.
Myers also expects PP to continue to make inroads in end uses currently held by PVC, polystyrene, PET and ABS.
Harris backed up Myers' grim prediction by claiming it will be 2002 before PP producers again see the 90 percent operating rate they enjoyed in 1998.
``Polypropylene has everything going for it — exceptional properties, high growth rates — but you can argue it's also its own worst enemy,'' Harris said. ``The industry is shooting itself in the foot by [adding capacity] at the same time.
``Everybody is acting in isolation,'' he added. ``They know the growth is there and they're going for it.''
Myers criticized PP makers that are adding capacity for the wrong reasons.
``Many capacity additions are being done to monetize lower-value propylene instead of to increase the value of polypropylene,'' he said. ``In reality, that strategy seldom works because few companies are able to pass costs on to their customers because of the competitive situation.''
Both Myers and Harris said the PP industry could benefit from further consolidation and the closing of older plants, such as the one Huntsman Corp. just closed in Woodbury, N.J. But neither speaker identified other plants that could be closed.