10 January 2014

BY RONNIE LIM RONNIE@SPH.COM.SG PRINT

That expansion has increased ExxonMobil's chemical plant workforce by 50 per cent, bringing total employment at its integrated manufacturing site here to 2,000 - PHOTO: ST
WHILE not quite moving a mountain, Singapore literally shifted part of a highway here. It rebuilt the main Jurong Island Highway to enable US energy giant ExxonMobil to site its second multibillion-dollar petrochemicals complex - codenamed Singapore Parallel Train - alongside its first complex to boost operational efficiency. It also facilitated passage to and special housing on the petrochemicals island for the thousands of workers - there were more than 22,000 construction workers at the peak - needed to build the project.
That expansion has increased ExxonMobil's chemical plant workforce by 50 per cent, bringing total employment at its integrated manufacturing site here to 2,000.
This solid backing - which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday said Singapore will provide to energy and petrochemical investors here - will help the industry ride out coming storms. With energy and chemicals contributing one-third of manufacturing output, Mr Lee stressed that it was not a sunset industry, but rather "one with a bright future", especially with fast-growing Asian economies fuelling demand.
Partnerships, such as that provided to Singapore by ExxonMobil (including that by its rivals such as Shell, BASF, Sumitomo Chemicals and others), have helped. As an Economic Development Board official earlier noted: "We have consciously grown the industry by anchoring the market leaders here."
Optimal base
It is reassuring that ExxonMobil's top brass have made statements outlining how the group has grown its Singapore refining/
petrochemicals site into its largest manufacturing site worldwide. The Singapore complex now accounts for one-quarter of its global chemicals capacity. This puts its Singapore facility in a good position - or optimal base, as ExxonMobil chemicals president Steve Pryor puts it - to supply demand in Asia and Asia Pacific. Singapore, rather than its main China market (where ExxonMobil also has a stake in a joint-venture plant), will be the focus of its future plant investments, the officials said.
There will certainly be coming competition from new cost-advantaged, shale gas-fuelled petrochemical plants being built (including by players already here, such as Shell and ExxonMobil) in the United States and Canada. But Mr Pryor noted that while shale gas was a game changer that provided a source of advantaged feedstock such as ethane, naphtha and LPG, "access to shale will not be enough on its own to sustain long-term success for chemical producers". This, especially when today's advantaged feedstock, such as shale, becomes commonplace or more costly in future.
That is why ExxonMobil is injecting "competitiveness" or new technologies into its non-shale gas sites such as Singapore. It has notched a world-first in a petrochemicals cracker that can run on crude oil without first needing to refine the crude into naphtha - which is largely what fuels most Asian crackers today. While no details are available as to how much crude oil accounts for the new Singapore cracker's total feedstock, this has helped it to lower feedstock costs and enables it to save energy and reduce carbon emissions by cutting out the refining steps to produce naphtha.
Other challenges
In the same vein, Royal Vopak is building an LPG terminal - which Singapore has been promoting under its JI version 2.0 plan to upgrade Jurong Island - to bring in alternative feedstocks for the industry here.
Mr Lee cited other challenges for the industry here, such as the slowdown in the inflow of foreign workers as well as more expensive and scarce land. While he did not offer immediate solutions, the fact that he made mention of them suggests that Singapore will work towards some solutions.
The bottom line was his assurance that Singapore will make it worthwhile for industry players to operate here despite such natural constraints, whether scarce land or access to feedstock, and to maintain a predictable environment for their investments to succeed over the long term.