SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Asian refiners' profit margins from producing diesel in 2017 may rise for the first time in four years as demand for the fuel improves in the infrastructure, construction, mining and oil and gas exploration sectors.
A return to normal winter conditions after last year's warmer-than-average temperatures along with a recovery in crude oil prices that will stabilise the finances in some producer countries will also spur higher margins, analysts and traders said.
Diesel demand growth will likely drive refiners' profit for producing a barrel of diesel from Dubai crude to an average of $11.40 a barrel in 2017, higher than the $10.70 a barrel recorded in 2016, said Suresh Sivanandam, senior manager, refining research Asia Pacific, at Wood Mackenzie in Singapore.
This would be the first annual increase since 2013. In 2016, the average margin fell to a seven-year low of $10.60 a barrel, according to data on Thomson Reuters Eikon. The 2017 forecast would still be below the peak of $26 in 2008 when China was a net importer of the fuel.
Coal prices that surged in 2016 should continue to provide support for diesel demand in 2017 as miners increase their consumption to operate machinery.
Coal miners in Indonesia and Australia boosted output because of rising prices in 2016. That Indonesian growth should continue in 2017, said Woodmac's Sivanandam.
"The recovery in coal prices is expected to give some boost to diesel demand, after years of muted growth," he said.
Continuing growth in other emerging economies is also expected to support diesel demand in Asia, said Sri Paravaikkarasu, head of East of Suez Oil at energy consultants FGE.
Diesel is used to fuel heavy vehicles in industry and construction as well as mining equipment and also as a heating fuel in Europe.
China's "Belt and Road Initiative" will boost infrastructure investments and diesel demand in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan, said analysts from consultants Energy Aspects in a note to clients.
The initiative "will be a key driver of infrastructure investment in the coming years," said Energy Aspects.
Globally, diesel demand is expected to rise by 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2017, following a decline of 50,000 bpd in 2016, boosted by a pick-up in drilling activity in North America and an uptick in mining activity in China, Energy Aspects said.
Spring refinery maintenance in Asia is expected to be the heaviest since 2014, with 1 million bpd more capacity shut in March and April this year than during the same time in 2016, which will significantly draw down diesel stocks, the consultants said.
Still, with Asian refinery capacity expansions expected to exceed 1 million bpd in 2017, mainly in China, Vietnam and India, diesel could come under pressure again in the second half of the year, Energy Aspects said.
"While overall Asian demand should improve, growing refinery and condensate splitter runs in both Asia and the Middle East will keep the market well-supplied," said FGE's Paravaikkarasu.
Editing by Christian Schmollinger