S. Thangapandian, Chief Executive Officer of Essar Oil UK, takes time out for ‘India Global Business’ to explain why the company is investing heavily in its Stanlow Refinery in Britain and the story behind turning a loss-making unit into a promising asset.
What are the company’s investment plans for the UK?
Essar Oil (UK) Ltd, which owns and operates the Stanlow Refinery, will be investing further $250 million in the refinery. We have already invested over $800 million to turn around the business since we acquired the Stanlow refinery. This reaffirms the group’s commitments to stay invested in core sectors. These investments will ramp up the throughput from 68 million bpd to 75 million bpd.
Investment will also deliver enhanced yields of high value products, reduce crude costs and drive revenue growth.
Essar has committed this year to a significant multi-million-dollar capex investment in the Tiger Cub project at Stanlow to deliver improved yields across the product slate and drive revenue growth. In addition, the continued ambitious expansion of our UK retail network and direct aviation fuel supply business are also important strategic elements in the drive to build a fully integrated downstream energy company. This is on the back of a strong FY17 performance, following record results posted the previous year.
Although we saw a marked $2.1/bbl decrease in the wider industry benchmark margin, our excellent operational reliability and ongoing margin booster projects saw our own margins reduce by less than half this amount, which demonstrates the enormous progress made within the business.
Please give details about the Tiger Cub project at Stanlow.
Under Project Tiger Cub, the Stanlow refinery in the UK will see major improvements to key units at the site to deliver further reduction in crude costs and improved yields across the product slate. Investment will be in the Catalytic Cracker and prudent technology, which will allow us to improve the yields of higher value products at lower costs. Project Tiger Cub and the additional works undertaken during the major block turnaround in 2018 will drive a further $2 per barrel in margin improvements.
How has the refinery evolved under Essar?
Within a span of six years after acquiring the strategic Stanlow refinery from Shell, Essar Oil UK has turned around the loss-making unit with a record net profit of $187 million in 2015-16 as it optimised processes, diversified crude basket and invested in margin improvement programmes.
The turnaround of the Stanlow refinery demonstrates Essar’s commitment to grow the Essar Oil UK business and remain invested in the oil & gas sector. Essar has invested over $800 million to turn around the business since it acquired the Stanlow refinery. The refinery is today a national asset meeting 16 per cent of the UK’s road transport fuel demand.
This equates to an annual production of over 4.4 billion litres of diesel, 3 billion litres of petrol and 2 billion litres of jet fuel. Our process units optimise our output, with over 9 million tonnes of crude oil and feed-stock processed each year, making us one of the biggest refineries in the country.
Today, we are a major supplier in north-west England with customers including most of the major retail brands operated by international oil companies and hypermarkets, together with Manchester Airport and the region’s trains and buses. This effectively means that whatever mode of transport you use in the region, it is likely it could be running on fuel provided by our refinery.
During FY17, a number of new monthly records were established for the highest CD4 Distiller crude throughput under Essar ownership, the highest ever amount of residue upgraded via Europe’s largest Catalytic Cracker and the highest ever production levels of diesel, alkylate and propylene.
Safety performance remains a critical business objective, with continuous investment in Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) to further improve standards. Stanlow achieved the Order of Distinction for 21 consecutive Gold awards in the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) Health and Safety Awards 2017. Connection to the national gas grid enabled the refinery to meet tighter environmental legislation regarding emissions.
How is the network of Essar-branded filling stations in the UK coming along?
Being the only Indian firm to own and operate a refinery in Europe, Essar has also entered into auto fuel retailing in UK. Currently, we have 42 branded retail outlets. We plan to open our first company-owned station close to the refinery in the beginning of next year.
We plan to raise the number to 400 in the next five years. The idea is to carve out 10 per cent of the UK market by playing on the ‘Made in UK’ platform and promising simpler contracts and improved financial and supply terms to dealers. The successful turnaround of the refinery gives the company a vantage position since most of the players source products from plants run by others or import.
How important is the aviation market for the UK business?
Combining our refinery supply strength and marketing capabilities is the key to achieving the objectives of value chain integration. We are already a major player in the wholesale supply of Jet A-1 to UK airports and during the year secured agreements for the direct supply of aviation fuel to major airlines such as Emirates, Etihad, Oman Air and Jet2.com.
Our recent deal to supply aviation fuel direct to Etihad Airways was another significant step in realising our objective of value chain integration by combining our refinery supply strength with our marketing capabilities in the aviation sector. This is aligned with our strategy of expanding the downstream presence of the business.
Essar Stanlow produces 16 per cent of the UK’s road transport fuel demand and manufactures over 2 billion litres of jet fuel each year, playing a key role in the country’s aviation industry.
We intend to strongly grow in this part of our business.
Does Brexit present particular challenges for the oil industry?
As far as Essar is concerned, we have benefited from Brexit as most of our costs are incurred in pounds. With Brexit, the pound has depreciated against dollar, which has resulted in saving of around $40-45 million yearly in costs.
What does the Rosneft deal mean for the Essar Group?
It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the recent Essar-Rosneft deal. I can only speak for Essar Oil UK business as that is the business I manage.
What is the appetite of the Essar Group in this sector now that the bulk of the company has been sold?
Though we have sold off our Indian operations of Essar Oil, we have not exited the oil and gas business. As stated above we have invested $250 million in the refinery and that reaffirms our commitment to the sector.
As for Essar Oil UK refinery, we are seriously looking into increasing production of petrochemical production, which gives us higher margins vis-à-vis normal products. This year, we have increased production to 10 per cent from 8 per cent last year. We are looking into the study to see how much further we can increase.
We are also looking into production of cleaner fuel, though that is in a very nascent state. By cleaner fuel, we mean electric fuel, the demand for which is likely to grow substantially over the next decade as governments across globe are seriously considering shifting to manufacturing electric cars.
Will the sale of the Indian operations to Rosneft impact the operating synergies of the UK business?
Essar Oil UK is one of the leading players in the UK’s oil and chemical industry. The sale of Essar Oil’s Indian operations to Rosneft will not affect the operation of Essar Oil UK in any way.