Europe propylene oxide demand outlook looks sluggish into Q1

Nicole Simpson


LONDON (ICIS)– Europe’s consumption of propylene oxide (PO) and its derivatives has been sluggish through H2, due to high energy costs, the economic downturn, and shifting consumer patterns.

No demand recovery is envisaged for the whole value chain in the near term.

European PO output has been constrained through recent weeks by planned shutdowns, high energy costs, and unplanned production issues.

However, availability has remained more than adequate amid poor offtake.

“Demand is still relatively weak [in] the market. Therefore, EO [ethylene oxide] and PO is well available,” commented one buyer.

At least three PO producers have trimmed run rates to reflect poor offtake and sources do not expect European output will to return to normal levels in the near future.

LyondellBasell and Covestro will idle the joint venture PO/styrene monomer (SM) plant in Maasvlakte, the Netherlands, in November and December, due to the high energy costs and weaker European demand.

Players through PO chain are prepared for buying interest to soften further in December as customers typically run-down inventories before the year-end.

However, initial discussions for December in the downstream mono propylene glycol (MPG) market have revealed an even poorer demand picture than sources anticipated.

“The worst part of it is that I don’t think December will be the worst month, I think January will be the worst part of it,” said one MPG producer.

The outlook for Q1 is similarly downbeat.

Softness in the polyols market outlook is particularly painful for PO sellers as around 60% of PO in Europe goes into the production of polyether polyols.

The consumption of polyols has been dampened by inflation, weaker activity in the flexible foam and automotive industries, and shortages of toluene diisocyanate (TDI), which is jointly used to make polyurethanes (PU).

Sources are unsure when flexible foam demand could pick up but it is not expected to recover in the near term.

Many purchases of comfort products were made in past years during lockdown and such products have a long lifespan.

In the MPG market, at least four European producers have trimmed run rates to reflect weak offtake and high energy costs.

The consumption of MPG has slowed through 2022 on uncertainty among buyers, spiking inflation, and high natural gas costs.

Growing interest from northeast Asian players in exporting to Europe has become another source of pain for local sellers.

Players in Asia are expected to continue to look for opportunities in Europe as it is one of the highest cost regions in the world.

At the same time, demand in Asia is faltering because of growing COVID-19 restrictions in China.

Northeast Asian MPG imports are increasingly difficult to ignore as the gap between local material and imports for prompt delivery is several hundred euros wide.

“We’ve lost demand because of imports: it’s hard to say a percentage because of the low demand. We see customers, especially in southern Europe, buy more imports,” said one distributor.

Asian exporters are also expected to continue to reap the benefit of a competitive energy cost position in the propylene glycol ethers market.

PO is a volatile, colourless, flammable liquid. Over 80% of PO goes into two main end uses: polyether polyols and propylene glycols.

Front page picture: Containers in the port of Rotterdam; Asia’s petrochemicals exports into Europe are increasing 
Source: Robin Utrecht/Shutterstock

Focus article by Nicole Simpson


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