By Chen Aizhu
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's top refiner Sinopec Corp <0386.HK> is scaling back billions of dollars in petrochemical investments in the face of growing U.S. competition in the sector and rising local opposition to oil and gas plants over environmental concerns.
The slowdown marks a break from two decades of expansion led by China's state energy majors, which have placed self-sufficiency above profitability and environmental impact to chase robust demand growth in the world's second-largest economy.
The scaleback by Sinopec, Asia's largest refiner and China's largest petrochemical producer, follows an earlier reduction in its 2014 spending budget in response to the nation's slowing economy and the poor performance of its chemical division.
Rival state refiner, PetroChina <0857.HK>, has taken similar steps, stalling a $13 billion venture jointly proposed by Shell (RDSA.L) in east China and another one in Guangdong with state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA.UL).
In the latest sign of a broad slowdown, Sinopec held up its plans to build a $3.1 billion ethylene plant in Qingdao city, a company source said on Monday, after a pipeline blast there last year killed 62 and threw into question its viability as a site for another petrochemical complex.
"It's a sector scaleback," said a Beijing-based industry official with an international energy major, which works closely with Sinopec. The official declined to be named because he's not authorized to speak to the media.
"Sinopec realizes that the traditional naphtha-based ethylene crackers are losing their competitive edge ... plus the growing public resistance to big petrochemical plants."
On top of the resistance of Chinese communities, cheap petrochemical building blocks from the United States threaten to overwhelm the sector. U.S. shale gas crackers can produce ethylene at less than half the cost of the naphtha-fed crackers typical in Asia, industry experts say.
Over the next five to 10 years, as many as a dozen world-scale, gas-based plants are expected to start up in the United States, including some built by Asian firms like Formosa Petrochemical Corp <6505.TW>, according to Vince Sinclair, head of Asia-Pacific petrochemicals research at consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
MEGA PROJECTS OUT
Sinopec has shelved or postponed proposals for nearly 4 million metric tons of annual capacity of ethylene, key building blocks for plastics and synthetic fibers, industry sources said, potentially boosting China's petrochemical imports from companies such as Saudi's SABIC <2010.SE> and U.S. firm Dow Chemical Co (DOW.N).
Sinopec spokesman Lu Dapeng acknowledged the company's scaleback, but declined to detail the extent or the duration of specific project delays.
Local governments, traditionally strong lobbyists for refineries or ethylene plants, are no longer as enthusiastic for such mega projects after Beijing last year started to link their political careers with ensuring environmental protection rather than just economic growth.
"Now they (local authorities) have become wary of the big chemical projects," said Lu.
The explosion last November at the bustling eastern coastal city of Qingdao exposed hidden dangers of sprawling urban development that often conflicts with industry planning by engulfing oil and gas infrastructure.
Earlier in April, hundreds of residents in the southern city of Maoming demonstrated against Sinopec's plan to build a petrochemical plant, among the latest of a series of similar protests.
Sinopec is also holding off going ahead with an ethylene project in the southern island province of Hainan, despite getting final government approval 10 months ago, a second company source said.
A proposed joint venture complex in southern Guangdong province with Kuwait hangs in the air as well, with the OPEC oil producer starting to look less attractive as a partner in comparison with gas-rich exporters like Qatar.
Instead of traditional oil-based ethylene, Sinopec is now also investigating turning China's abundant coal into petrochemicals. This is seen as more cost-effective versus naphtha-based ethylene over the long run despite a bigger initial investment - with the additional advantage that coal mines are mostly located far from residential areas.
"For the chemical segment, the company will further optimize feedstock mixes ... and expedite coal-based petrochemicals," Sinopec said in its annual earnings report last month.
In its first major investment in coal-based chemicals, Sinopec Engineering Group <2386.HK>, a newly listed unit of the Sinopec Group, agreed last November to build a $3.1 billion plant in northern China to produce olefins from methanol extracted from coal.
Sinopec is also looking at other feedstocks, and a recent supply pact between Sinopec and U.S. firm Phillips 66 (PSX.N) suggested that the refiner is diversifying from naphtha - a refinery oil product - to lighter and abundant natural gas liquids to produce petrochemicals.
(Additional reporting by Charlie Zhu in Hong Kong; Editing by Tom Hogue)