The run-up in U.S. production of natural gas liquids over the past 10 years spurred the development of a whole lot of infrastructure. More pipelines to transport mixed NGLs from production areas to NGL storage and fractionation hubs, especially Mont Belvieu, TX. More fractionators to split y-grade into ethane, propane, and other “purity” products. And, specifically for ethane — the lightest, quirkiest, and most plentiful NGL — a number of ethane-only steam crackers were built along the Gulf Coast to take advantage of the new supply abundance, as were ethane-only pipelines, export terminals, and a whole new class of cryogenic ships — Very Large Ethane Carriers, or VLECs — to move the product to markets in Europe and Asia. Today, we begin a new series on the unique nature of overseas ethane exports, including why most incremental export volumes are tied to long-term supply deals with a handful of global ethylene plants designed — or reconfigured — to “crack” ethane.
The South Texas NGL market has always been a world of its own, a self-contained liquids ecosystem running from Brownsville to Markham, a distant 200 miles from the NGL epicenter at Mont Belvieu. In recent years, however, the South Texas market has been undergoing radical change, first with the emergence of the Eagle Ford basin, then with the onslaught of Permian production and, most recently, with the aptly named EPIC NGL Pipeline and new fractionation capacity in greater Corpus Christi. More supply and demand are on the way, with new pipes, exports, and the largest ethane-only petrochemical plant in the world under construction. And with these developments, a strategy by several large, well-financed players has emerged – to develop an NGL storage and fractionation hub competitive with Month Belvieu. Today, we begin a series to examine the South Texas NGL market and how changes there will impact flows, utilization, and pricing across North America and beyond.
Understanding whether propane production is up or down over the past few months is a bit more difficult than you might think, depending on which set of EIA numbers you choose to look at. The U.S. Energy Information Administration provides monthly numbers on the last day of the month lagged by about two months, and weekly numbers on Wednesdays, lagged by only five days. Both time series are closely watched by the propane market to assess the availability of supply for retail customers, petrochemical feedstock demand, and exports. Usually, these two sets of numbers move in tandem. But not always. The monthly numbers show production down by about 70 Mb/d from April to June, which is what you would expect given what was happening with crude and gas production at that point in time. Yet EIA weekly production numbers showed production increasing by about 90 Mb/d for the same period. So which way is propane production really trending? If you want to understand what’s going on, and you don’t mind delving into some deeply wonky NGL analytics, hang on for today’s blog.
About two-thirds of all of the propane consumed in the U.S. is used as fuel — for indoor and outdoor cooking, home heating, water heaters, drying crops, and running forklifts and fleet vehicles. The other one-third is used as a feedstock for producing ethylene and other petchems. About 95% of the propane supply to meet this demand is produced and processed right here in the U.S. of A., making propane the most American fuel we’ve got. But when firing up the grill out back and watching that first propane molecule flash to life, most backyard chefs don’t think much about the long and winding road their propane has traveled. It’s actually a fascinating tale of supply-chain logistics that involves high pressures, bitter cold, wild rides up and down tall towers, storage deep underground, and, of course, trains, trucks, and tanks. We think it’s a tale that needs to be told, and that’s what we’ve been doing in this update of another Greatest Hit blog.
Yet again, the Texas-Louisiana coast is bracing for a hurricane that has the potential to be really bad, not just for the people and homes in the storm’s path, but for the region’s all-important energy sector. Hurricane Laura will be crossing a swath of the Gulf of Mexico dotted with oil and gas production platforms, and is headed for an area chockablock with tank farms, refineries, and steam crackers, as well as export terminals of every stripe: crude oil, refined products, ethane, LPG, and LNG. There’s a good chance there’ll be a lot of disruption to many energy-related activities for at least the balance of this week — and maybe longer — but one of the biggest hits could come to Mont Belvieu, TX, the center of NGL storage and fractionation. Today, we discuss how the storm might affect not only storage at the U.S.’s largest NGL hub, but gas-processing activity hundreds of miles inland.
When you talk about energy molecules, propane takes the prize for the most versatile. In addition to its well-known uses for BBQ grills, indoor cooking, and home heating, propane is used for drying crops, as a feedstock for petrochemicals, as an engine fuel for forklifts and fleet vehicles, and in recent years, as an export product in its own right. Propane moves to market on pipelines, railcars, ships, barges, trucks — just about any form of transportation you can imagine. But exactly how any particular molecule of propane makes the journey from the instant it comes out of a well to all those market destinations can be a mystery to all but a small cadre of propane market insiders. In another in our series of updates to RBN’s greatest hit blogs, we are delving into this mystery, one step at a time, today focusing on transportation from the producing basin to storage and fractionation at the Mont Belvieu hub, and the transformation of the generic commodity to a marketable fuel.
When firing up the backyard propane grill and watching that first propane molecule flash to life, most people don’t think much about what it took to get that fuel to the cylinder they picked up at the store. But that long and winding road from the production well to the tank beneath your grill is actually a fascinating tale of supply-chain logistics involving producers, midstreamers, and propane retailers. In today’s blog, we will take that interesting and sometimes mysterious trip with a molecule of propane. We will travel over 1,000 miles, moving in and out of various facilities, purifying our product and incurring various costs each step of the way. So strap on your seat belt for a selection from our greatest blog hits, in which we track a typical propane molecule’s journey from beginning to end.
Canada’s propane market has quickly morphed from one characterized by abundant supply to one facing a tightening supply/demand balance, with direct exports to Asia playing an increasingly important role. This tension became evident in May 2019, when the start-up of the Ridley Island Propane Export Terminal (RIPET) in British Columbia, Canada’s first direct export connection for propane to Asian markets, effectively eliminated the usual seasonal surplus for propane in Western Canada. With rail exports of propane to the U.S. often reliant on that excess for restocking in the summer months and as a reliable fallback supply in the cold winter months, the prospect of fewer or no periods of excess supply may be signalling trouble for some U.S. regions that have come to rely on those volumes. What’s more, within a few months, another propane export terminal in BC will be starting up, further reducing what’s left for the U.S. market. In today’s blog, we conclude our series examining the Western Canadian propane market by considering the impacts of Canada-to-Asia propane sales on U.S. propane consumers and propane prices.
In their second-quarter earnings presentation last week, Energy Transfer said that they and their joint venture (JV) partners, Satellite Petrochemical, expect the first commissioning cargoes from their new 180-Mb/d ethane export facility in Nederland, TX — formally known as Orbit Gulf Coast NGL Exports LLC — to begin in November, only three months from now. This new outlet for U.S.-sourced ethane comes at a time when production of oil, gas, and NGLs faces near-term declines due to reduced drilling activity resulting from low crude prices. With those declines, will there be enough ethane supply to meet the capacity of the new Orbit export dock and other upcoming ethane-related projects? The short answer is, yes … for the right price. Today, we examine the latest supply and demand dynamics shaping the U.S. ethane market.
Over the past five years, the production of natural gas liquids from gas processing plants has soared by almost 2 million barrels per day (2 MMb/d), or about 60%. That has been great news for natural gas producers, processors, and end-use markets. But there is a catch: the rate of production does not match up with demand. While production is a steady, “ratable” volume, demand is anything but ratable. Demand swings with the gasoline blending season, cold weather (or lack thereof) in the propane market, export demand, petchem feedstock economics, the impact of COVID-19 on transportation fuels, and a myriad of other factors. The flywheel that balances supply and demand on any given day is storage. Not just any storage, though. For NGLs, storage of large volumes means salt caverns. Huge caverns thousands of feet below the surface. Today, we update one of RBN’s Greatest Hits blogs and take a deep dive into the history of NGL storage — all the way back to Smoky Billue.
The Ridley Island Propane Export Terminal — Canada’s first propane export facility — has been a game changer since it started up in May 2019. Located along the coast of British Columbia, RIPET has been shipping record amounts of propane to Asian markets in recent months, just as Western Canadian propane production has been sagging due to the twin pressures of crude oil price weakness and COVID-19-related disruptions. With production down, RIPET gradually ramping up its export capacity, a second export terminal poised to come online nearby, and Canadian demand for propane holding steady, something has to give, right? Today, we examine the changing supply/demand outlook for Western Canadian propane, and what it might mean for railed exports to the U.S.
Propane exports from AltaGas and Vopak’s Ridley Island Propane Export Terminal on the west coast of British Columbia jumped to 52 Mb/d in May, the highest since it began operations in May 2019 and exceeding the terminal’s original design capacity for the second time this year. The increased exports suggest expanded capacity at the facility and the potential for sustained higher exports from there even as Western Canada’s propane supplies plateaued in 2019 and then were hammered lower earlier this year as oil prices and demand collapsed. The resulting tighter balance in the greater Pacific Northwest region has boosted prices there, wreaking havoc on price spreads and disrupting rail movements to U.S. destinations that have relied on them for the past few years, from the Midwest to California. Moreover, Western Canadian export capacity is poised to nearly double by next spring, when a second nearby export terminal is slated to begin operations. With supply upside looking tenuous, but overseas exports set to rise further in early 2021, there is a serious squeeze emerging for propane rail exports to the U.S. Today, we consider the implications of what could be a much tighter propane market in Western Canada over the next few years.
Since the mid-2010s, MPLX has been developing a far-reaching pipeline system for delivering heavier natural gas liquids and field condensate from the Utica and “wet” Marcellus plays to Midwest refineries for gasoline blending and refining, and to the Alberta oil sands for use as diluent. The multi-year, multi-project effort, which has involved the construction of new pipelines, the repurposing of existing pipes, and the development of new storage capacity, will reach another milestone next month, when MPLX starts batching normal butane and isobutane through most of the pipeline system. And further enhancements are on the horizon. Today, we provide an update on the master limited partnership’s long-running strategy for moving Marcellus/Utica-sourced liquids to market more efficiently and at a lower per-barrel cost.
Energy markets balance — eventually. In the midst of the turmoil we’ve experienced this year, there have been periods when it seemed like markets were going to hit the wall. But even with the historic WTI oil price glitch on April 20, the physical crude oil markets continued to function. That’s the way it is supposed to work, and it’s good news. The bad news is that figuring out how these markets are balancing in these volatile conditions can be challenging if not downright perplexing. Nowhere is that more true than the market for U.S. propane. Production is down, but so is demand. Inventories are up, and so are prices. Propane continues to be exported, even though global demand has been whacked by COVID. In today’s blog, we explore these developments and put the spotlight on RBN’s NGL Voyager, our subscriber report and data service that we have just reformatted, upgraded and generally reconstructed to meet the information needs of today’s NGL marketplace.
The Marcellus/Utica production region in the northeastern U.S. is not immune to the upheaval in global energy markets. There, a number of E&Ps are implementing further cutbacks in their natural gas production. That will result in lower NGL production, which may have serious implications for regional supplies of propane for heating this coming winter. LPG exports out of the Marcus Hook terminal near Philadelphia also may be impacted. Today, we look at recent developments in the Marcellus/Utica and the potential effects of lower NGL production in the region.