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The Big Money - Refiners Cut Capex and Signal Shift Toward Renewables

In the spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 crisis started hitting the energy sector hard, many refiners made the tough decision to dramatically cut back capital spending plans and operating costs for the year in order to weather the storm. While these cuts were swift and sizeable, they were not absolute — they couldn’t be, given that refining is a capital-intensive industry with complex assets that require seemingly constant maintenance, equipment swap-outs, and upgrades. And then there’s the added pressure that refiners also need to invest in keeping their facilities in compliance with changing environmental rules, and to consider the overall impact of investments in new, “greener” fuels, such as renewable diesel, that may help them improve their profitability going forward. Today, we look at refiner capital spending in the context of recent history and highlights some of the growth projects being pursued in the sector.

From a capital spending perspective, refiners are very different animals than exploration and production companies (E&Ps). Sure, both sectors of the energy industry require a lot of capital, but while E&Ps’ capex can ramp way up or way down year-to-year, reflecting shifts in hydrocarbon supply, demand, and (mostly) pricing, refiners’ spending tends to be more consistent over time. Why? Refiners focus primarily on maintaining existing assets and on making the incremental enhancements needed to refine new grades of crude, to expand refining capacity, and to comply with new environmental regulations.

When discussing refinery capex, we tend to think of the spending in two major categories: Sustaining Capital and Growth/Discretionary spending.

Sustaining Capital

Sustaining capital is essentially “stay-in-business” capital. Refining involves large, expensive equipment with specialized technology to convert crude oil and intermediate feedstocks into finished products like gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, as well as specialty products like chemical feedstocks and lubricants. The various units within a refinery must be continuously maintained to ensure they can operate 24/7 in the safest, most efficient, and most productive manner.  There are two primary subcategories of sustaining capital:

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