Solving the energy riddle and predicting the future of the petrochemicals field can drain the life out of a warehouse full of Energizer batteries.
But that didn't stop Gary Adams, Bill Sanderson and P.J. Juvekar from trying their best to do just that at Chemical Market Associates Inc.'s World Petrochemical Conference, held March 26-27 in Houston.
Adams, president of Houston-based CMAI, said he sees a lot of ``false fears'' in the present market.
``One of these false fears is that high oil prices will lead to economic decline, conservation and oversupply,'' Adams said. ``The reality is that oil demand will moderate but not disappear.
``Relatively high energy prices are here to stay, but as the developed part of the world becomes a service sector, it doesn't need as much energy as before to keep the economy growing.''
Another false fear is the concern about the wave of plastics and chemicals plants being built in the Middle East, he said.
``The global market is large enough to absorb the new [Persian Gulf] capacity,'' Adams said. ``A measure of inexperienced commissioning will cause that material to come to market slower than expected. And by 2015, the new Gulf still will have only 20 percent of world olefins capacity, 15 percent of thermoplastics capacity and 20 percent of polyethylene capacity.
``The region will be a major player, but it's not going to dominate the world and it won't be a price-setter.''
Sanderson, an industry veteran with Houston's Purvin & Gertz Inc. energy consulting firm, has learned the difficulty of predicting the price of a barrel of oil - especially in a market where new highs seem to be set every week.
``I wouldn't be surprised to see oil at $120 [per barrel] this year - but I also wouldn't be surprised to see it at $75,'' Sanderson said. ``The debt crisis has driven financial investment in oil. There are huge investments in long contracts on oil in futures markets.
``There's a lack of alternatives for the world's wealth to flow into, so it's flowing into oil. That's going to continue to affect energy prices.''
And even though higher natural gas prices have crimped North American PE and ethylene margins, prices for that material haven't increased like oil has. Sanderson said natural gas prices are expected to increase slowly to 2015. But, it's already too late for some U.S. businesses, he added.
High natural gas prices ``have destroyed a lot of industrial demand in the U.S.,'' he said. ``We've had an eight-year period of demand destruction that's priced a lot of customers out of the market.''
Biofuel production also is expected to rise as oil alternatives are sought out. Sanderson pointed out that the U.S. exceeded its 2008 corn ethanol mandate in 2007. Rising corn prices, however, reduced ethanol production margins in 2005 and 2006, which slowed down some construction of ethanol plants.
Juvekar, a commodity chemicals stock analyst with Citigroup Global Markets in New York, foresees tough times ahead for U.S.-based commodity chemicals firms as new capacity arrives elsewhere in the world and the industry enters a cyclical trough period.
``Plastic exports [from North America] are especially strong right now, but I don't think it's a sustainable trend in the long term,'' Juvekar said. ``Most of the new capacity is in the Middle East, and although there will be some delays there, the center of gravity in petrochemicals is shifting.''
Juvekar also characterized the period between 1998 and 2008 as a ``lost decade'' in which commodity chemical firms underperformed the S&P 500. This lack of profitability has led to seven major asset sales in recent years, including Basell Holding BV's $19 billion purchase of Lyondell Chemical Co.
Most of these buyers have been Middle Eastern sovereign funds or private equity companies - but Juvekar also highlighted five recent deals in which private equity firms have exited similar markets - including Blackstone Group's public stock offering of Celanese Corp. last year.
Overall, Citigroup expects the U.S. economy to grow 0.8 percent this year and 0.9 percent in 2009. Gross domestic product growth in 2007 was 2.2 percent.
Moving forward, Juvekar said that North American commodity chemical makers can focus on ``three sustainable themes'' of innovation, customization and consolidation.
He credited Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Co. with innovation via its Kevlar and Nomex polymer fiber products for equipment used by soldiers and firefighters. Engineering plastics makers have practiced customization by ``intricately tying'' themselves to customers in the auto and electronics sectors, he said.
And consolidation in the market is inevitable.
``Ultimately, U.S. commodity chemicals will be dominated by a few super majors,'' Juvekar said.