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War at the pumps
China’s NOCs have slashed fuel prices in a bid to steal back market share
from private retailers, reports Saw Wright
CHINA’S teapot refineries, and the independ- PetroChina have the capacity to fight this kind
ent fuel stations they supply, have had a rough of price war for some time without cutting into
year – weathering rising taxes, falling demand their overall profits, while the teapots are already
W H AT: and a revocation of export licences. Now a new operating with strained resources and may find
Sinopec and PetroChina challenge has appeared in the form of a price war their position diminished.
have cut prices for their with the country’s state giants.
higher-quality fuel in an In recent weeks Sinopec and PetroChina Under pressure
effort to out-compete have engaged in a price war across the country’s There are more complex motivations in play,
their rivals. fuel stations, offering free car washes, credits on though, and it remains unclear who will ulti-
pre-paid gas cards and heavy discounts for fuel mately benefit.
W H Y: as they attempt to out-compete their rivals. Chi- Since import quotas were first granted in
The two fuel retailing nese customers have responded well, with many 2015, the independent refineries and their fuel
giants have seen their abandoning the cheap, but lower-quality, fuels station clients have been something of a head-
market share eroded by offered by the teapot-fed fuel stations in favour ache for the Chinese government. There have
both private and foreign of higher-quality NOC offerings now that prices been a growing number of claims of tax avoid-
players. have equalised. ance and breaches of regulations, as well as con-
This marks something of a change of tactics cerns that the teapots’ thirst for crude has driven
W H AT N E X T: on the part of state oil firms. Previously, they had up prices for other buyers. Massive demand from
Beijing can only let a offered sparse discounts, relying on their dom- the teapots has previously seen tankers queuing
price war continue for ination of China’s wealthy southeast to support at Chinese ports and kept oil prices from slump-
so long or risk the NOCs higher pricing. ing too far.
crushing the private The objective of this seems clear – restore the But one reason Beijing has attempted to liber-
sector. NOCs’ market dominance over their upstart alise the energy economy and encourage teapot
rivals and the international competitors claw- refineries has been to cut down on the power of
ing their way into China. Once commanding an the oil clique and the NOCs.
enormous duopoly covering almost the entire Splitting up the market and allowing compet-
Chinese market, Sinopec and PetroChina have itors to enter did achieve this to an extent, espe-
seen their market share eroded by Beijing’s cially as it allowed Chinese consumers to choose
attempts to liberalise the economy. cheaper options and multinational oil giants to
Meanwhile, with oil prices low and a glut of enter China’s previously closed economy.
fuel available on the local market, Sinopec and In a pro-liberalisation climate a few years ago,

P4 w w w. N E W S B A S E . c o m Week 29 27•July•2017
ChinaOil C O M M E N TA R Y ChinaOil

when oil cost more than US$100 per barrel, Sin- managerial cultures it is hard to implement
opec and PetroChina would not have dared to innovation in tech and operations in both con-
try to force out their competitors for fear of either ventional and non-conventional plays in the way
damaging their profits or triggering state inter- the US and EU majors, and US shale, can.”
vention and a return to stricter price controls.
But with crude prices half of what they were Damage control
three years and some of the teapots’ shine hav- However, smaller teapots that cannot hope to
ing rubbed off, this may be the NOCs’ chance to implement these often expensive changes may
regain ground. see themselves forced out of the market entirely, or
bought up by the NOCs as they flounder. This is less
Diversification of an issue for IOCs invested in the Chinese mar-
Whoever is behind it, though, the price war ket, although Royal Dutch Shell warned of market
cannot go on forever, even with the NOCs’ deep volatility in an email quoted by Reuters, blaming
pockets and extensive resources. “seasonal supply and demand changes”.
The National Development and Reform Sinopec, in particular, cannot take too big
Commission (NDRC) has been slow to alter a hit to its profit margins or even appear to be
official prices of fuel and diesel. Prices were only embattled thanks to the upcoming IPO of a fur-
lifted last week after an eight-week freeze that ther 10% of retail division Sinopec Marketing.
the commission said was driven by a focus on As this sale (intended to reduce corruption,
international crude prices rather than domestic improve efficiency as well as encourage Chinese
market shifts, which limits the amount to which investors) is actually aimed at the public unlike
prices can fall and incentives can be offered. the previous one, Sinopec is particularly inter-
In addition, the teapots may find other ways ested in demonstrating both market dominance
to circumnavigate the price falls, as they have and profitability.
already been doing in order to survive without This puts it on a delicate balancing act, trying
access to the lucrative export markets and in the to keep profit margins comfortable while trading
face of higher taxes. them for gains in market share.
With China’s demand for oil shrinking as the “Sinopec is most capable and professional,”
economy develops and fuel-efficiency becomes O’Donnell said, “and likely can handle a long-term
the order of the day, the independent oil produc- low-price environment best of the Chinese NOCs.
ers and distributors in China are having to take With the independents, I’d say one has to be sure
drastic measures to stay afloat. of what kind of support they get from the state as
Shandong Dongming Petrochemical, for things go forward; this is not a free and competitive
example, plans to add naphtha cracking systems market country, after all. But in principle, a long-
able to process up to 800,000 tpy to produce term low-price regime should give the competitive
plastics and synthetic rubber, diversifying away advantage to the big NOCs who would normally
from the vehicle fuel game altogether. Others are scarf up independents in trouble.”
investing in small onshore fields to reduce pro- The question then becomes whether the Chi-
duction costs, or branching out into other indus- nese government will allow Sinopec to push the
tries such as lumber, finance and even renewable price war for long enough to gain that advantage
energy. Shandong Haike, for example, is moving and buy up its teapot rivals. If the government’s
into electrolyte production for lithium-ion bat- objective is to force the teapots to diversify and
teries, in line with Beijing’s clean energy policies. gain a competitive advantage, it will have to walk
Speaking to NewsBase Intelligence (NBI), a fine line between creating competitive, innova-
energy analyst Thomas O’Donnell suggested tive conditions and allowing the NOCs to drive
that fostering this diversification might have the fragile teapot ecosystem into the ground.
been the state’s objective all along when liberal- Perhaps that explains the motivations behind the
ising the industry. recent offer from Sinopec’s trading arm, Unipec,
He said: “The world of oil is growing much to work with independent refiners. (See: Sino-
more technical, and all Chinese companies are pec: China’s oil imports will hit 8m bpd this year,
being challenged. With their organisational/ page 12)v

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