The Urethane Blog

Benzene Update

US Gulf braces for more benzene cargoes from South Korea as volumes hit new highs
January 27/2021
MOSCOW (MRC) — Benzene exports from South Korea have increased as prices spiked globally, leading to more than 204,000 metric tons being loaded for export in December for destinations worldwide, said Chemweek.

The last time that South Korean export volumes were near this level was in April 2020. Since then, the country’s exports of benzene have fallen from 196,000 metric tons in both May and June to 147,000 metric tons in October, at a time when low benzene prices and poor margins for para-xylene caused producers in South Korea to throttle back benzene output.

However, the final six weeks of 2020 saw benzene prices spike in North America and Europe as traders and consumers become concerned about availability as styrene monomer prices were also spiking.

In December 2020 more than 80,000 metric tons of benzene departed South Korea for the US Gulf Coast (USGC), the highest since February last year. About 10,000-15,000 metric tons of that volume was the result of delayed November loadings that became early-December departures. November benzene volumes from South Korea to the USGC had been expected to be around 35,000 metric tons and ended up at 23,000 metric tons instead.

The higher benzene prices in the USGC and Europe attracted more supply. With Indian benzene moving to the EU, China pulled in over 100,000 metric tons from South Korea, the highest volume to load from there to China since June 2020.

The driving factor behind the higher benzene prices and better margins remains the stronger end demand for styrene, phenol, and methylene di-para-phenylene diisocyanate (MDI). COVID-19 has changed consumer behavior and caused spikes in demand for food packaging and single-use plastics, and has even improved automobile demand in some regions.

The spot benzene price in North America on 10 November was USD1.68/gallon (gal) for the prompt month. One month later, the prompt month benzene price was USD2.56/gal for North America, an increase of USD0.88/gal, or USD263/metric ton. Such a steep price increase has improved benzene margins for the various production methods, including heavier steam cracker feedstocks, refinery extraction, and selective disproportionation (STDP) units.

Producers noticeably began to increase benzene production in both South Korea and North America by December. North America saw the STDP units increase rates, and domestic producers begin to sell more barrels into the spot market. At the same time, the frenzy of cargoes being booked from South Korea resulted in the 58,000 metric tons loading increase between October and December.

When producers in South Korea are running at high rates, their monthly benzene exports can reach upward of 260,000 metric tons. South Korean derivative production rates or turnarounds also impact how much benzene is exported from month to month.

North American benzene supply is expected to be more plentiful in January than was initially expected in November 2020. The high prices were not sustainable, however, as the influx of cargoes into the USGC combined with US sellers diverting as much supply as possible into the spot market caused prices to ease. The benzene spread over gasoline narrowed from USD1.50/gal on 9 December to USD1.20/gal this week as traders and consumers adjusted their price expectations now that more supply has been made apparent. That includes the consideration that up to 40,000 metric tons of benzene was exported from the USGC to Europe between December and January scheduled loadings, some of which was made available due to unplanned derivative production issues at US styrene and/or phenol plants.

Along with phenol, acetone is largely used to produce bisphenol A (BPA), which, in its turn, is used in the production of plastics such as polycarbonate (PC) and epoxy resins.