Just when you think something really can’t get any worse, it does. Sadly, that’s the story on chemical industry force majeures since my last half-year review. As I noted then:
“There is no such thing as an accident. The chemical industry, like others, has known this for over 30 years, since the adoption of Quality Management techniques. Yet it seems that over the past 18 months either this important fact has been forgotten or, more likely, I fear, has simply been ignored.
The evidence for this worrying statement is in the chart, which shows the number of monthly references to “force majeure” in ICIS News:
□ Until recently, this has shown 20 – 40 references a month, too high, but at least stable
□ Since 2015 there has been an alarming increase, with the range now 40 – 80 references
□ And there is no consistency on a month-by-month basis, suggesting that nothing is being done to improve the position”
As the chart shows, force majeures have since climbed to new all-time highs, with October showing a new monthly record of over 200 reports. The average for 2016 was 75/month, even higher than the 2015 average of 65/month.
What is to be done? Part of the problem is undoubtedly that plants are getting older, and so more likely to break down. Part of the problem is that preventive maintenance and training has been cut back to save money.
But the main problem in too many companies is more fundamental – too many senior managers now see profits as being more important than safety.
This is something quite new. In the past, force majeures would have led to lower profits – companies who were unable to supply would lose sales, and have to sell afterwards at a discount to compensate for their unreliability. But with today’s lower demand levels and growing capacity surplus, this discipline no longer applies. As the second chart shows from the International Energy Agency:
□ European and Asian refineries have been running well below pre-2009 levels due to lack of demand
□ They have therefore been producing less naphtha as a feedstock for petrochemical plants
□ Only N America has seen good refinery rates – and, of course, most of its olefin production is gas-based, so the higher rates do not translate directly into more product
The result is that companies have been under no pressure from their feedstock suppliers to sell more petchem products in order to use more naphtha. Instead, this slowdown in feedstock availability has balanced today’s weak levels of demand growth in major petchem markets and, counter-intuitively, led to relatively high levels of profitability.
The real question therefore is perhaps how long today’s abnormal market conditions will continue. When they end, and customers once more penalise unreliable suppliers, attitudes will change. One can only hope that today’s downgrading of safety consciousness doesn’t, in the meantime, lead to a major incident somewhere.