MPLX LP and the midstream limited partnership’s subsidiaries (collectively referred to as “MPLX”) are stepping up to address a lingering hydrocarbon-delivery issue in the Utica and “wet” Marcellus plays, namely, how to more efficiently transport the field condensate and natural gasoline produced there to refineries, Western Canadian heavy-crude shippers and other end-users. Currently, condensate and natural gasoline are moved within and out of production areas in eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia and western Pennsylvania via truck, rail or barge. MPLX’s three-part, $500-million plan, the first elements of which are nearing completion, is mostly about pipelines—a mix of new ones and creatively repurposed existing ones. It looks like a win-win for condensate and natural gasoline producers and buyers. Today we begin a series on improving the flow of these two close relatives in the hydrocarbon family to buyers in the Midwest and beyond.
When it comes to the Marcellus and Utica shale plays, almost all the attention goes to either natural gas or to lighter natural gas liquids (NGLs) like ethane, propane and butanes. That makes sense—after all, they are the big fish in the Northeast’s hydrocarbon pond, mostly due to their production volumes, which remain near record levels despite the national and international market upheavals of the past two-plus years and a reduction in the number of wells being drilled. What is often overlooked, though, is the fact that the liquids-rich producing areas in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, most of which are within a two-hour drive of West Virginia’s panhandle, also produce sizable amounts of field condensate and natural gasoline, both of which 1) have significant value and 2) need to be dealt with. NGL producers in the play have taken a variety of approaches to taking away the NGL “purity products” separated by fractionators in the Marcellus/Utica. (For a primer on NGL fractionation, see Talkin’ ‘Bout My F-f-fractionation.) Ethane (also known as C2 because it has two carbon atoms per molecule), the lightest of the NGLs and the most prolific in the Northeast, is either “rejected” into natural gas (see You Ain’t Seen Nethane Yet) or piped to ethane consumers (ethylene plants) outside the region through Mariner East to the Marcus Hook, PA marine terminal (near Philadelphia), Mariner West to Sarnia, ON (see From the Beginning), or the Appalachia-to-Texas Express (ATEX) Pipeline to Mont Belvieu (TX), the epicenter of the North American NGL market. Propane (C3) produced in the Marcellus/Utica is transported primarily by rail tankcar or pipeline (Mariner East to Marcus Hook or the TEPPCO pipeline deeper into the Northeast); butane (C4) moves via rail and TEPPCO as well, but it will not be transported on Mariner East to Marcus Hook for export until a planned expansion is completed.
The next NGL in this light-to-heavy sequence is natural gasoline; it is one of “The Pentanes”—which would be a great band name (maybe “Monty Belvieu and the Pentanes”?)—a group of hydrocarbons composed primarily of molecules with five carbon atoms (C5s) that are part of the broader condensate family. (Natural gasoline is sometimes called pentane-plus because it includes more than C5 molecules; much of the rest is C6, or hexane.) As we explained in our Drill Down report, Like a Box of Chocolates—The Condensate Dilemma, there are three branches of the condensate family tree in the U.S.: 1) field condensate, which also is known as lease condensate, and which is classified by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) as a (super-light) crude oil; 2) plant condensate, which includes natural gasoline and other pentane/C5 NGLs separated out at fractionators; and 3) naphtha, a refinery product with chemical characteristics similar to field and plant condensate. (Our focus in this blog series is on Marcellus/Utica-sourced field condensate, which as you can see the photo below looks like … we’ll call it chardonnay, and natural gasoline, which looks like gin.)