How Can a Circular Plastics Economy Grow the Oil Industry?

The oil industry is turning to petrochemicals for long-term growth as vehicle efficiencies and electrification render transportation a declining market. Of course, petrochemicals often means plastics. With the sustainability spotlight shining brightly on this area, what effect will environmental strategies to reduce or ban plastic consumption have on long-term oil demand growth?

The Problem With Plastic
Resolving this complex and increasingly sensitive issue will be challenging. The starting point to understanding the implications for natural resources and the environmental consequences of shifting away from plastics must be: If not plastic, then what? And reviewing the entire supply chain is essential, otherwise the issue of environmental impact will simply surface elsewhere.

Plastics are favored by many because they are incredibly efficient and cost-effective, but finding alternative solutions for their many uses is going to be complicated, problematic, and expensive, requiring a commitment from the public, brand owners, and governments. This will take time. 

A circular plastics economy could lessen the impact of disposal while having minimal effect on chemical demand growth because of rising incomes, populations, and living standards. It is important to note that waste management is a major problem, primarily in developing countries, and better management would go a long way in addressing plastics waste in the oceans and the negative public perception. So, although the rate of growth (in percentage terms) will be lower than we've seen, it's still growth stemming from an ever-expanding base so the volumes are quite sizeable.

Ethane will capture the majority of this, and, along with naphtha, will remain the primary feedstock for petrochemicals and plastics. And the chemical industry will continue to grow, requiring continuous investment. By 2035, chemicals will account for almost all oil demand growth. Approaching 2040, our forecast shows chemicals being almost 20% of total oil demand.

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