LONDON BP (BP.L) has no plan to build new refineries despite growing oil production and will focus on modernising existing plants while expanding its network of filling stations to generate $3 billion in additional cash.
The group's head of refining told Reuters that even though BP's output was set to spike as new fields become operational, its attitude to refining remains more cautious.
"Are we going to invest in more greenfield refining in BP? Probably not," said Tufan Erginbilgic, who has worked in refining since 1990.
He said BP was happy with its refining portfolio although it could sell some assets in downstream - which combines refineries with chemicals plants and infrastructure such as storage.
Refining of crude oil into fuels such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel has for years been the industry's problem child, having to grapple with weak and volatile profit margins as well as competition from modern refineries built in China, India and the Middle East.
The problems are compounded by the prospect of more energy-efficient cars, aircraft and heating, tighter marine fuel standards, the rise of electric vehicles and slowing consumption growth.
A push to modernise and streamline BP's refining, trading and marketing - known as downstream activities - generated $5.6 billion in free cashflow last year, up 25 percent from 2014 despite refining margins at 12-year lows, Erginbilgic said.
Erginbilgic, who became downstream chief in 2014, said he is aiming for a $3 billion increase in free cashflow by 2021.
"We will sell one or two assets, making very good money today because the tide went up for these assets," he told Reuters.
Refining proved to be extremely valuable for integrated oil companies, offsetting much of the losses from production operations during the two-year tumble in oil prices that started in 2014.
Erginbilgic says BP's investment decisions are driven by an expected global push towards greater energy efficiency and its belief that demand growth will slow in the next 20 years to reach about 112 million barrels per day (bpd) from 96 million bpd today.
Overcapacity and weak demand growth will probably prompt more refiners to close plants in Europe, he said. In the United States, refineries will benefit from rising production and booming exports to growing Asian markets.
Last year BP and Russia's top oil company, Rosneft (ROSN.MM), dissolved a refining joint venture in Germany. In the United States, BP invested billions of dollars in modernising its Whiting refinery near Chicago, originally built in 1889 by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.
BP is by no means the only oil major embracing a strategy rethink to adapt to evolving markets. Rivals including Shell (RDSa.L) and France's Total (TOTF.PA) have undergone deep portfolio reviews in recent years, selling and closing many operations.
BP was forced to start asset sales long before the oil price collapsed, in part to raise money for litigation costs relating to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The company has sold or converted 16 plants since 2000 and today operates or has a stake in 11 refineries and 17 petrochemicals plants.
It is seeking to sell its 50 percent stake in Chinese petrochemicals joint venture SECCO, its largest investment in China, Reuters reported last year.
POCKETS OF GROWTH
Though Shell and trading company Vitol, among others, expect gasoline and diesel demand to peak between 2020 and 2030, some refining segments still represent solid growth stories, Erginbilgic says.
Petrochemicals will not suffer any significant slowdown because energy efficiency doesn't reduce demand for plastics, particularly in Asia, he said.
BP's trading operations are expected to benefit from growing global crude trade on the back of abundant U.S., Canadian and Brazilian production and rising energy demand in Asia, he added.
BP is also betting on expanding its network of petrol stations with high-end convenience stores at a time other majors, including Shell and Exxon Mobil (XOM.N), have been shrinking their vast but often basic networks.
In Britain, BP operates its chain with retailer Marks & Spencer (MKS.L). In Germany, it teamed up with REWE.
Late last year it agreed to buy a chain of stations from Australia's top grocer Woolworths (WOW.AX) for $1.3 billion and Erginbilgic said BP's model could be expanded to markets such as Mexico, Indonesia, China and India.
Erginbilgic said the marketing business, which also includes lubricants, can deliver an extra $2 billion in cashflow by 2021, twice as much as refining and petrochemicals.
(Editing by David Goodman and Dale Hudson)