Why the two fuels that power the global economy are weak in Europe

Europe’s weak economic growth has hit the manufacturing sector hard, reducing demand for diesel and naphtha

As a major importer of diesel-type fuel from the Middle East, India and the US, any significant drop in Europe’s usage is likely to have knock-on effects for economies and oil markets around the world. Reuters
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If the oil market offers clues about the state of the economy, it’s through the prism of two petroleum products: diesel and naphtha. And in Europe, the news is bleak.

The former powers lorries, trains, ships and industries including farming and construction. The latter is used by the petrochemical sector to make everything from medical equipment to chewing gum. OECD Europe’s annual consumption of both is set to plunge this year, with naphtha hitting its lowest since 1975.

“Europe’s weak economic growth has hit the manufacturing sector hard,” said Alan Gelder, vice president of refining, chemicals and oil markets at consultancy Wood Mackenzie. That’s reduced “demand for naphtha as a petrochemical feedstock and diesel for the manufacturing and movement of goods”.

The continent’s demand is still critically important even in a world where traders are intently focused on the potential for supply disruptions emanating from war in the Middle East.

The expected consumption drop in the two fuel types this year is well over half a million barrels-a-day versus pre-pandemic levels – not far off a Belgium’s worth of overall oil usage.

As a major importer of diesel-type fuel from the Middle East, India and the US, and a regular exporter of naphtha to East Asia and Latin America, any significant drop in Europe’s usage is likely to have knock-on effects for economies and oil markets around the world.

Part of this year’s demand decline is due to long-term, structural trends. Buyers in the EU have long been favouring petrol-powered options over diesel and electric car sales have also hit consumption.

But Europe’s economic malaise is a big factor too. Purchasing managers’ index data show continuing contractions in the euro zone’s construction and manufacturing, while inflation remains above target. Germany’s economy, the EU's largest, shrank last quarter and is at risk of entering recession.

The numbers on naphtha are stark: consumption is set to fall more than a quarter this year versus 2021 to 844,000 barrels a day, the lowest it’s been in 48 years, says Ciaran Healy, an oil market analyst at the International Energy Agency.

While naphtha is also used in blending to make petrol, the watchdog’s consumption measurement doesn’t include this uptake – instead, the vast majority is for use as a petrochemical feedstock.

Run rates at petrochemical steam crackers – huge units that convert naphtha and other feedstock into the industry’s basic chemical building blocks – have plunged, data from Argus Media says. Producer OMV on Tuesday also dropped its forecast for European steam cracker utilisation.

Top five economies

Petrochemical giant BASF, meanwhile, attributed slower European chemical production to “lower demand resulting from high inflation, increased interest rates and a renewed rise in natural gas prices” on Tuesday.

In the continent’s top five economies – Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Spain – recent data all show contractions in demand for diesel-type fuel.

French road diesel sales fell by 13.4 per cent versus a year earlier in September. In Germany, overall oil demand is expected to drop by about 90,000 barrels a day this year, more than any other country in the world – bar Pakistan.

Overall, OECD Europe’s diesel-type fuel demand is set to be down by about 380,000 barrels-a-day this year versus the 2019 pre-pandemic level, the IEA said.

The global picture is more mixed. In China, demand is booming despite the travails of its property sector: during January-August of this year, diesel-type fuel was up by 40 per cent versus the same period in 2019 and naphtha consumption has more than doubled in the corresponding period, Jodi data said.

China has seen massive investment in petrochemical capacity. A jump in production has pushed many of the industry’s products – such as ethylene, propylene and aromatics into oversupply – even as they’ve boosted the country’s attractiveness as a manufacturing hub, said Amber Liu, Asia head of petrochemical analytics for ICIS.

“China has some of the most efficient supply chains – after the petrochemicals expansions – so the prices of China’s finished products are extremely competitive compared to other countries,” Ms Liu said.

In the US, implied demand for distillates – which include diesel and heating oil – has fallen below seasonal norms in the past few weeks.

Going forward, the nation’s distillates demand is expected to stay below that of year-ago levels in the fourth quarter before picking up early next year, government forecasts said.

Still, the trucking industry is showing signs of nascent recovery, and rail freight is rising as well, analysts at JP Morgan said.

Naphtha is typically used to make petrol in the US while cheaper natural gas liquids – a by-product of drilling shale oil – have become the preferred feedstock for petrochemicals.

For Europe, “the outlook for 2024 remains weak for both products,” Mr Gelder said.

Updated: November 05, 2023, 3:00 AM