When it comes to U.S. NGL exports, propane and ethane grab most of the attention. Each accounts for a big share of the typical NGL barrel, and ethane exports are a frequent topic of conversation because of the potential for growth — especially if the U.S. and China find a way to end their trade war. But three other so-called NGL “purity products” — normal butane, isobutane and natural gasoline — are being exported in increasing volumes too, providing important supplemental revenue to NGL producers and marketers. What’s their story? Today, we look at the export volumes and destinations of three often overlooked purity products.
Offer any energy commodity at a low-enough price and buyers will surface, as long as there’s a way to get that liquid or gas from where it’s being sold to where it’s being used or put on a boat for export. That’s been the recent experience of the butane market in Western Canada, where a perfect storm of events last fall caused butane prices in Edmonton, AB, to freefall to near zero. But things have turned around, at least for now. Today, we take a look at the dramatic recovery of the Edmonton butane market and what might lie ahead.
The margin for producing ethylene by steam-cracking ethane has been less than a dime per pound since mid-March 2018, and less than a nickel for nearly nine of the past 15-and-a-half months. In fact, for two weeks last September, the ethylene-from-ethane margin fell below zero. And yet, a joint venture of two of the world’s savviest companies — energy giant ExxonMobil and petchem behemoth Saudi Basic Industries Corp., or SABIC — recently committed to building what will be the world’s largest ethane steam cracker: a 4-billion-pounds/year facility to be constructed near Corpus Christi by 2022. Is this a case of blind optimism? No, not when you factor in the cracker’s location, the JV’s concurrent plan to construct two polyethylene plants and a monoethylene glycol plant right next door, and the co-developers’ global market reach. Today, we discuss the thinking behind ExxonMobil and SABIC’s big investment in Texas’s San Patricio County.
Keyera Corp. and SemCAMS Midstream, two major midstream players in Western Canada, in mid-May announced they are proceeding with the construction of their joint-venture project — a new NGL and condensate pipeline system out of the liquids-rich Montney and Duvernay plays of Alberta. The planned Key Access Pipeline System would provide the first direct competition for the transportation of NGLs and condensate out of these producing regions, currently dominated by Pembina Pipeline Co. Any and all transportation options for the movement of condensate and other NGLs out of the Montney and surrounding plays will likely be welcomed by Western Canadian natural gas producers, who are looking to capitalize on oil-sands producers’ growing demand for homegrown sources of condensate for use as diluent in bitumen transportation. Today, we provide key details about the project and how it fits into the region’s existing condensate/NGLs market.
U.S. ethane exports have risen steadily over the past five years, from next to nothing in early 2014 to an average of 255 Mb/d in 2018 and 269 Mb/d in the first three months of this year. But unlike its heavier NGL siblings propane and butane, which are in demand globally as fuels and feedstocks, ethane’s only established use is in steam crackers specifically equipped to process it, so there are only a few countries where exported ethane is likely to end up. Also, the waterborne transport of ethane is generally limited to specially designed ethane carriers, and there aren’t many of those around because of ethane’s restricted market. All this makes for an export commodity that stands apart. Today, we review the evolution of U.S. ethane exports and the challenges to export growth posed by the U.S./China trade war.
Global demand for propylene is rising, but lighter crude slates at U.S. refineries and the use of more ethane at U.S. (and overseas) steam crackers has reduced propylene production from these plants. That has led to the development of more “on-purpose” propylene production facilities — especially propane dehydrogenation (PDH) plants — in both the U.S. and Canada. More than 2 million metric tons/year of new PDH capacity has come online in North America since 2010, another 1.6 MMtpa is under development, and propane/propylene economics may well support still more capacity being built by the mid-2020s, maintaining the U.S. and Canada’s position as propylene and propylene-derivative exporters. Today, we begin a series looking at “on-purpose” production of propylene by PDH plants and what the development of these facilities will mean for U.S., Canadian and overseas markets.
It’s impossible to know for certain what will happen next in the international markets for propane, butane and ethane — there are too many variables and vagaries. What is very doable, though, is to gain a better understanding of the broader market forces at play. For example, the U.S. now has a few years under its belt as a major propane exporter, so it’s feasible to assess trends in where that propane is going — or no longer going — and to examine how propane exports to various parts of the world are impacted by everything from a high-stakes trade war to governmental efforts to encourage the use of cleaner cooking fuel. Today, we continue our deep-dive into propane, butane and ethane exports with a look at where propane exports from the U.S. East, West and Gulf coasts are heading, and why.
As Western Canadian natural gas production has been recovering off lows from a few years ago and pushing higher, one of the by-products of this recovery has been steadily rising production of natural gasoline, an NGL “purity product’ also known as plant condensate. Condensate production has been growing so much that Pembina Pipeline Corp. — a leading transporter of natural gasoline in the region — has been undertaking another round of expansions to its Peace Pipeline system to move more of the product to the Alberta oil sands. There, condensate is used as a diluent to allow the transportation of viscous bitumen to far-away markets via pipelines or rail. Today, we take a closer look at Pembina’s effort to expand the Peace Pipeline.
The AltaGas/Royal Vopak Ridley Island Propane Export Terminal in the Port of Prince Rupert, BC, is poised to receive and load its first Very Large Gas Carrier (VLGC) any day now, a milestone that will make it Western Canada’s first LPG export facility and only the second such terminal in the greater Pacific Northwest region. With a capacity of 40 Mb/d, the facility is likely to provide a healthy boost to Western Canadian propane exports in 2019, easing oversupply conditions in the region while also providing producers with enhanced access to overseas markets, particularly in Asia. Today, we take a closer look at the new Prince Rupert facility and what it means for the Western Canadian propane market.
The biggest driver of generally rising LPG exports is the widening gap between how much LPG the U.S. consumes and how much it produces — there’s simply too much of the stuff, and LPG-hungry European and Asian markets beckon. But month-to-month export volumes are often erratic, affected by a wide range of variables. Winter weather in Wisconsin. Steam cracker economics in Germany. Propane dehydrogenation (PDH) plant outages in China. Not to mention lingering fog or a tank-farm fire along the Houston Ship Channel, or the startup of a new NGL pipeline to the Marcus Hook terminal near Philly. Add to all this the export-volume spikes that may come later this year and in 2020 when new dock capacity comes online along the Gulf Coast. Today, we take a look at what drives the monthly ups and downs in exports.
U.S. propane is fanning out across the planet, with export volumes now triple those of any other country. The global LPG market today is dominated by cargoes shipped from U.S. ports. Buyers from Mexico to South Korea can’t make a move without considering conditions on the Houston Ship Channel or pipeline constraints in Pennsylvania. But an interconnected market is a two-way street. U.S. propane prices are now influenced more by the weather in Europe and Asia than by the weather in Wisconsin or New Hampshire. And it’s not only propane. All NGLs are experiencing growth in U.S. export volumes, with huge implications for infrastructure, capacity constraints and, of course, prices. Today, we preview the deep dive into these issues on the agenda at RBN’s upcoming xPortCon conference.
Until just a few years ago, the rise and fall of U.S. propane inventories each year was driven in large part by winter weather: the colder the temperatures in the major propane-consuming areas, the bigger the draw on stocks. Things have gotten much more complicated lately, though, thanks to a combination of rapid NGL production growth, a generally booming propane export market, and the vagaries of petchem margins. Now, to get a handle on propane stocks, you not only need to be able to forecast the weather, you also need to monitor international propane arbs and steam cracker economics — oh, and crude prices too, because they have a significant effect on NGL output and propane supply. Today, we discuss the many factors that impact propane inventories and prices in this sometimes chaotic market.
What a deal! Take as much butane as you want — all for the low, low price of less than 10 cents/gallon (c/gal). That was the situation in Edmonton, AB, last November and the price stayed dirt cheap until a few days ago. Given a decline in demand for butane in crude blending, along with growing NGL production, the NGL processing and storage hub in Western Canada was awash in butane as winter approached. It remains flush with product today — and the price for Alberta butane is still low. How did this happen, and how will it play out over the next few months? Today, we examine the factors that led the Edmonton NGL market to see a price fall to near zero c/gal for the second time this decade.
Rising natural gas liquids production in the Niobrara is increasingly straining existing pipeline capacity out of the region and has spurred midstreamers to propose various combinations of new pipelines, expansions to existing pipelines and pipeline conversions in order to ease constraints. One of the latest entrants is a joint venture of Williams and Targa Resources that would expand Rockies producers’ ability to move mixed NGLs to the Mont Belvieu, TX, hub for fractionation and marketing/export. Williams plans to build a 188-mile pipeline — Bluestem — that would extend from its Rockies-to-Conway, KS, Overland Pass Pipeline to Kingfisher County, OK. For its part, Targa will build a 110-mile extension of its new Grand Prix NGL pipeline from southern Oklahoma north into Kingfisher to connect with Bluestem. As part of the deal, Williams has also contracted substantial volumes on Grand Prix as well as at Targa’s fractionation facility at Mont Belvieu. Today, we discuss Williams and Targa’s plan.
There’s never a dull moment in the ethane market. Four new steam crackers and an expansion at an existing plant are slated to begin operating along the Gulf Coast in 2019, and a recently restarted Louisiana cracker will continue to ramp up to full capacity — together adding about 250 Mb/d of ethane demand by year’s end. You’d think there would be plenty of ethane out there for them. After all, U.S. NGL production has been on the rise, driven in part by new Permian gas processing plants and new NGL pipeline capacity to the coast. But fractionation constraints at the Mont Belvieu hub are likely to linger through 2019, raising questions about how much ethane will actually be produced and how much will need to be rejected into pipeline gas. Today, we consider the challenges facing the ethane market this year as demand increases and fracs run flat out to keep pace.