Leader Talks: Orlen Unipetrol CEO Tomasz Wiatrak on the fuel industry's race to a sustainable future

We talked to a Central European petrochemical and fuel industry leader about the global energy transformation and the future of fossil fuels in Czechia.

William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 22.01.2024 17:00:00 (updated on 22.01.2024) Reading time: 7 minutes

Global industries are undergoing profound change. With efforts to cut the use of fossil fuels ramping up among governments and businesses around the world, these are challenging times for all companies. For businesses whose activities are based on the creation of products from fossil fuels, the need to transform appears even more urgent.

One such business is Orlen Unipetrol, a central European petrochemical giant headquartered in Poland and operating two oil refineries in Czechia. Along with the worldwide shift away from fossil fuels, fundamental challenges have been posed to Orlen in recent years by the war in Ukraine, which caused major disruption to European oil supplies, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in huge disruption to global supply and demand.

Yet Orlen Unipetrol remains one of the major cogs in the regional economy, turning crude oil into various products including fuel, oils, plastics and other petrochemical products. Expats.cz spoke with the group’s CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Tomasz Wiatrak, to find out more about how Orlen is weathering the storms of global change.

Where in the Czech Republic does Orlen Unipetrol have refineries, and how does it help protect the environment around them?

We are the only crude oil processing company and fuel producer in Czechia. We have refineries in Litvínov and in Kralupy nad Vltavou. In Litvínov, we process about two-thirds of our total of eight million tonnes of crude oil per year. The remaining one-third is processed in Kralupy. 

Our Group also has other production facilities, in Neratovice, Pardubice, and Otrokovice, and two research and development centers in Litvínov, with a branch in Ústí nad Labem and in Brno. 

In this context, you might be wondering how we protect the environment. We know that chemical production requires many sources of energy and produces many emissions. For this reason, we’re engaged in this area, meeting all limits and investing nearly CZK 2 billion annually in projects associated with environmental protection and support.

Can you explain how Orlen Unipetrol innovates to make the crude oil business more sustainable and environmentally friendly?

Our industry is in the midst of a crucial transformation driven by the social demand for new and cleaner energy sources. Ambitious goals and deadlines for the fulfillment of these goals are being set. 

We have set our own goals too, and want to reach net zero by 2050 at the latest. At the same time, we know that we cannot accomplish this with current scientific knowledge and technologies. 

As such, we have defined gradual, specific goals for the coming period that can be precisely estimated and forecasted. By 2030, we want to cut our carbon emissions by 25 percent. We have defined areas that are crucial to meet this goal. These include decarbonization, lower energy intensity, biofuel and hydrogen development, expanded circular economy and recycling, and implementing digitization in all production, logistics and support processes.

We have allocated CZK 35 billion to this segment, dedicated to projects that will help us achieve our goals in these crucial areas.

Is it possible to have a genuinely environmentally friendly oil industry?

I alluded to this in my previous answer. With current technologies, this isn’t possible. It also depends on the direction of the world as a whole and the development of societal demands. 

Some technologies, however, may enable humankind to use oil-based products for a long time because their production will not really burden the environment. Here I’m not thinking about fuels, but primarily about petrochemical products. We can take energy for their production from ecologically pure sources, and we will be able to recycle a clear majority of them effectively and in an environmentally friendly way.

How can this be done?

There are many ways of recycling plastic, and all the solutions in this area are well-known. However, the problem is in the cost of particular solutions and their energy intensity. 

The more complex solutions could not be implemented effectively yet. This is changing thanks to technological developments. Here, I’m primarily referring to chemical recycling, a process which requires energy and various technologies. Yet it enables us to give a second life to plastics that cannot be returned or mechanically recycled. 

After many years of evaluating the operations of our testing pyrolysis unit, we will proceed to the actual construction of a fully-fledged unit over the coming years. This will require an investment of several billion crowns.

What is Orlen Unipetrol’s view of the future demand for refinery products in light of the EU’s ban on selling new petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles from 2035?

In our prognoses, we see that although the consumption of traditional fuels will stagnate in the coming years, there will not be any drastic fall in the next five or ten years. As such, conventional fuels will continue to play a significant role, especially in Czechia, whose car fleet is 16-plus years old. 

E-mobility based on batteries or hydrogen will initially be driven by corporate car fleets, transport and forwarding companies. Fossil fuels will only be abandoned in personal mobility slowly. 

We might also see the development of synthetic fuels that are currently still in their infancy due to the demanding nature of their production. We’ll see. The future may also be affected by other new technologies, developing customer preferences, regulatory measures, or substantial geopolitical or social upheavals.

How has Orlen Unipetrol coped with the recent upheavals in the energy market caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

We have definitely coped with it better than with the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic. When Covid arrived, we were unprepared for such a substantial and long-term disruption of supplier-customer ties and the consequent slump, especially in the petrochemical segment. 

On the other hand, we were subsequently able to react fast and flexibly, and we leveraged this experience in tackling the current challenges. I think our great success lies in the fact that we were able to continue with sufficient supplies to the Czech market amid this geopolitical crisis, and that we have continued to provide enough fuel in Czechia.

Considering the previous significance of the Druzhba pipeline network for oil supplies to the EU, how is Orlen Unipetrol coping with national and international steps regarding interrupted oil supplies from Russia?

We are part of a strong and stable international group that is the largest capital company in Central Europe. This gives us the stability to purchase raw oil products and the strength to implement the necessary investments. 

Like the aforementioned green energy projects that we’re undertaking, the shift away from Russian oil is a crucial investment worth several billion crowns. It mostly concerns our main refinery in Litvínov, which is connected to the Druzhba pipeline and processes Russian crude. We are preparing this refinery’s technologies for a transition to non-Russian oil blends which will be possible at the turn of 2024 and 2025, after increasing the capacity of the TAL pipeline from Trieste, Italy.

LEADER IN FOCUS Tomasz Wiatrak graduated in business administration from the University of Warsaw, and in 2021, from the Executive MBA program at Politecnico di Milano in Italy. He came to the ORLEN Group from Energa Informatyka i Technologie, a company specializing in solutions for the energy sector, where he served as chairman of the board of directors responsible for operational and strategic management in 2017 and 2018. He has been chairman of the board of directors and CEO of the ORLEN Unipetrol Group since July 2019.

Are the products from your Czech refineries exported, or are most of them sold within Czechia?

Our refineries produce fuels from crude oil from various regions in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. We have already spoken about the Litvínov Refinery. At the refinery in Kralupy nad Vltavou, we process only non-Russian blends. This allows us to set our business policy to meet local and export commitments even after the embargo on Russian oil. 

We export about one-fifth of our fuel production to neighboring countries. Still, the Czech market is our top priority, so we seek to place as much of our production as possible here. If necessary, we are ready to redirect our export distribution for the benefit of the Czech market.

Education is an important issue if Czechia wants to realize the potential of state-of-the-art technological innovations. How does Orlen Unipetrol support education and learning for the next generation of scientists and researchers?

Besides supporting the environment, employees, and local communities, education is one of the crucial areas of our corporate social responsibility activities. Our industry requires highly specialized employees, so each generation cares for the development of the next. 

We cooperate with many universities, secondary schools, and even primary schools. We are involved in creating content for their educational activities, contributing to their teaching materials, and awarding grants and scholarships to dozens of students and teachers every year. 

In Czechia, we have been involved in a unique educational and collaborative format with the University of Chemistry and Technology and the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of the Czech Technical University for nearly ten years. We have a university center directly on the premises of our Litvínov Refinery, where about 50 students study in the production facilities themselves.

Could you explain your professional journey to where you are today?

I have more than 15 years of experience managing optimization, restructuring, and audit projects. I graduated in business administration at the University of Warsaw, and in 2021, I graduated from the Executive MBA programme at Politecnico di Milano in Italy. 

I came to the ORLEN Group from Energa Informatyka i Technologie, a company specializing in state-of-the-art solutions for the energy sector. In this company, I served as the chairman of the board of directors responsible for operational and strategic management in 2017 and 2018. I have been the chairman of the board of directors and CEO of the ORLEN Unipetrol Group since July 2019.

This article was written in cooperation with ORLEN Group. Read more about our partner content policies here.

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