The US chemicals industry is planning a sharp increase in its exports as a result of the cost advantage created by the shale gas boom, putting pressure on competitors in Europe and Asia.
The American Chemistry Council, the industry association, predicts in forecasts published this week that US chemicals exports will rise 45 per cent over the next five years, as a result of a wave of investment in new capacity aimed at overseas markets.
The US has already shifted from being a net importer of chemicals in 2011 to forecast net exports of about $2.7bn this year, and the ACC expects that to rise to almost $30bn by 2018. Excluding a deficit of about $40bn in pharmaceuticals, that would represent a record surplus of about $68bn in five years.
European chemicals producers have already been announcing job cuts, plant closures and exits from some businesses, in part because of the pressure from lower cost US competitors. Paul Hodges of International eChem, a consultancy, says there is “a real fight to the death” in petrochemical markets.
The shale revolution has caused a boom in US production of natural gas liquids used as chemical feedstocks such as ethane, and sent their prices tumbling. Ethane has fallen from 91 cents per gallon in 2011 to about 26 cents per gallon today.
US producers also face electricity costs about half their levels in Europe, and natural gas just one-third as high.
The result has been a dramatic reversal from the mid-2000s, when the US was one of the world’s most expensive locations for manufacturing chemicals, to today when it is the second cheapest, bettered only by projects in the Middle East that have tied up feedstock on favourable terms.
International chemicals companies have announced 136 planned or possible investments in the US worth about $91bn, according to the ACC, with half of those projects proposed by non-US companies.
US groups such as ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, Chevron and Phillips 66 are among the leaders in investing in new capacity, but even producers from Asia and the Middle East such as Formosa Plastics of Taiwan, and Sabic of Saudi Arabia, have been looking at projects in the US.
Kevin Swift, chief economist of the ACC, said: “The US has become the most attractive place in the world to invest in chemical manufacturing.
“Our country is poised to capture market share from competitors abroad.”
Andrew Liveris, chief executive of Dow, said the decision to invest in energy-intensive industries in the US was a “slam dunk”.
“Low-cost shale gas: that’s a really big opportunity that you can’t miss,” he said.
Some analysts argue that US exports are unlikely to grow as quickly as the industry expects, because the proposed new plants will face delays as a result of a shortage of capacity in the US construction industry. Many also still need to secure all the permits they need from regulators.
However, Hassan Ahmed of Alembic, a research firm, said he expected that eventually much of the planned capacity would be built, threatening to take market share from European and Asian producers.
“The folks in the US are rubbing their eyes and wondering how it got so good,” he said.
“US companies used to have to go round the Middle East with a begging bowl. Now the tables have turned.”
Dow and some other companies have argued for curbs on US exports of liquefied natural gas in order to ensure that their energy cost advantage is preserved.
Mr Liveris told the Financial Times that with five LNG projects now approved by the US administration for worldwide sales, “where they are right now seems to be fine. Maybe [allow] one or two more, but I think then you should pause, and see what happens to the futures market.”
Additional reporting by Chris Bryant in Frankfurt
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