Interview with Steven McMurray, Senior Technical Advisor at PTTGC

Thank you for your time! To start off, tell us a little about how you got involved with the industry, and your current role at PTTGC.

I have been “involved” in the industry since entering Purdue University with the clear intention on studying Chemical Engineering, and have remained engaged with petroleum and petrochemicals ever since. I spent nearly 20 years with UOP in the startup and technical service, technology delivery realm working with various refiners worldwide before reaching out and joining to the company which has grown and evolved into PTT Global Chemicals.

Here I hold the role of senior technical advisor to the company, bringing my experience and expertise to operations, technology, maintenance, process control etc. for existing and new operations, as well as revamping projects that are always ongoing. PTT GC is a very large and diverse company, which means there is seldom a dull or quiet moment!

What’s your outlook on crude oil going forward?

I am maybe one of few who feel the reported death of crude oil has been greatly exaggerated. While the trend may be shifting from transportation fuels over the next few decades, the growth and demand for petrochemicals will still drive a strong crude-to-chemicals pathway for years to come.

What do you think the shape of post-pandemic recovery will look like across different regions, Europe, Asia, Americas etc?

The initial world’s reaction to the pandemic was that the new normal is here to stay, but again I am perhaps a contrarian on this matter as well. While refiners and chemical manufacturers have accelerated the adoption of many remote and data savvy tools, eventually the need to “be there” and interact will take over, in my opinion.

Already you can see, especially in North America and Europe that people are quickly taking back a semblance of normality by getting out and attending events and travelling. I do think that Asia in general will be slower to return to the “old” normal as the region has historically been more cautious both at the outset and still today. Most are realizing that remote meetings may have their place, but nothing beats direct, face-to-face meetings for expediency, clarity and reaching conclusions more decisively.

And let’s be honest, while many are excited for the upcoming ARTC virtual conference, even more would be elated if and when the event becomes the in-person attendance gala it was in the past. Humans are a social species, and we are all waiting for that day to come.

Petrochemicals will account for more than a third of global oil demand growth to 2030 and nearly half through 2050, predicts the IEA. What does this mean for refiners? How can they meet growing demand for petrochemicals in the post-COVID world, while also achieving more stringent sustainability objectives?

It will be a challenging environment going forward, that is for sure. And there will be winners and losers over the coming decades. Refiners must learn to adapt and be nimble, which means willing to invest capital in technology streams that will allow a shift from fuels to petrochemicals. Those who are afraid to make the commitment or try to hang on to the past configurations too long, will ultimately pay the price. Knowing and identifying where the downstream opportunities lie and what technologies will most efficiently get you there will obviously be a key contributor to a successful outcome.

And sustainability adds yet another dimension to this road mapping equation. What may seem like the best path today, may be quickly usurped by something new.

Take hydrogen: While it was always part of the conversation, the number of papers and publications dedicated to Blue and Green hydrogen have quickly multiplied. So ultimately there will be many different paths to choose from, but depending on regional and local dynamics, what is right for one may not be the best for another. 

How can refiners effectively capture the benefits of the energy transition?

I think it is closely linked to the previous answer. Being aware of novel ways to get to the same product, or in the case of fuels to a different product, with a much lower energy/carbon footprint will be part of the picture, as well as going as far as actually getting into the new energy business especially with bio-derivative fuels and chemicals and, yes, hydrogen.

Increasing profitability is a key question addressed regularly by refiners, particularly in recent times. What can refiners do to increase profitability with resources that they already have?

One would hope that most refiners are already on the road to energy optimization within their complexes as traditionally this was not at the forefront of designs until the last couple of decades. Outside of that obvious answer, using the new advancements in digital technology, big data to find ways to lower costs, increase reliability and uptime, and uncover possible hidden paths to better efficiency or molecule management could all play a role.

But ultimately, I don’t think relying on the resources within the battery limits today will be enough. Refiners will have to be willing to invest in ways to help improve efficiencies and allow more flexibility to shift with the markets. It is not easy to do much molecule management without investing some capital.

Hydrogen seems destined to play a part in tomorrow’s energy plan. How can operators best prepare?

Hydrogen is a valuable commodity inside a refinery, as most people here would know. Certainly, making sure operators are getting all the value out of the hydrogen they have through a comprehensive hydrogen management system is step one. Depending on which hydrogen technologies become the drivers in the near future, it might even be a place where the refining environment could be well suited to bring those technologies to scales needed to fuel a transportation fleet or provide efficient energy production capabilities.

What will the fuels of the future be, and what will it take for them to displace the fuels of today?

I think we will see perhaps an even broader mix of fuels in the future, heavily dependent on geographic location, government mandates, etc. Diesel seems to be under pressure most recently. Jet fuel will be around for a long time, since electric planes as a source of mass transportation are far, far in the future although there is some work at getting hydrogen into the air. Green jet fuel seems to have a very bright future. CNG, LPG, hydrogen, will likely all have some markets.

Displacing today’s fuels is mainly an economic challenge, and while everyone wants to be green, ultimately the question will come down to this: But at what cost? As technologies evolve, they will certainly become more cost competitive, but in the short term it will likely be fuelled – pardon the pun – mainly by government mandate.

What would be the main priority for operators to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic era?

Having a clear management strategy and vision for going forward will enable quick and nimble decision-making in what will surely be a very evolutionary and competitive environment, will be paramount to sustainable future success and even growth. Failure to be adaptable and build some degree of flexibility into the process configurations will lead to continued pressure from the future mega crude-to-chemical complexes that are beginning to come online.