After several years of development, Shell’s $6 billion Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex — the first of its kind in the Marcellus/Utica shale play — is really taking shape about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The facility, which will consist of a 3.3-billion-lb/year ethylene plant and three polyethylene units, is in its final stages of construction, as is a pipeline that will supply regionally sourced ethane to the steam cracker. When the Falcon Pipeline and the PPC comes online, possibly as soon as 2022, they will provide a new and important outlet for the vast amounts of ethane that is now either “rejected” into natural gas for its Btu value or piped to Canada, the Gulf Coast, or the Marcus Hook export terminal near Philadelphia. Today, we discuss progress on the Marcellus/Utica’s first world-class petrochemical complex and what it will mean for the play’s NGL market.
It’s been a chaotic start to the new year for propane. In the past 12 days, the Mont Belvieu price is up over 15%, closing on Tuesday at 87 cents/gallon — the highest since October 2018. The usual culprit of winter weather has something to do with it, but not just in North America. Over the past couple of weeks, frigid temperatures in Asia, along with supply cutbacks from the Saudis, have supported U.S. propane exports to those markets, further tightening the U.S. supply/demand balance. But as is often the case these days, the market has another complicating factor. Delays transiting the Panama Canal have stacked up VLGCs — the vessels carrying U.S. propane to Asia — on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the waterway, pushing up charter rates to levels not seen in years. And on top of that, new transit-scheduling rules from the Panama Canal Authority will shove VLGCs to the back of the line, potentially making it even more difficult to get through the canal without significant delays. Today, we’ll explore these developments and what they may portend for the remaining weeks of winter.
How about some good news to start the year? Over the past few weeks, ethylene margins have blasted into the stratosphere. These are good times for steam crackers, those petrochemical plants that use mostly NGL feedstocks to produce ethylene and other building-block chemicals. As you might expect, this newfound prosperity has a lot to do with ethylene’s price. In December alone, the price of ethylene was up 50%; versus April it’s up a whopping 4X, coming in yesterday at 37.5 cents per pound (c/lb). There are a whole range of factors responsible, including petchem outages due to the hurricanes, new downstream derivative units coming online, robust exports from the Enterprise Morgan’s Point dock, and, oh yes, strong demand for downstream products — everything from food packaging to construction materials. Is the spike in ethylene prices going to last? And what does it mean for NGLs, which account for more than 95% of the feedstock supply for U.S. ethylene. We’ll explore those questions and more in this blog series we begin today.
It’s been a wild and woolly December in the U.S. propane market. The Mont Belvieu propane price is up by almost 40%, blasting past 70 c/gal on Friday — a level not seen since February 2019, when WTI at Cushing was trading at $57/bbl, $8/bbl above where that price sits today. Is it simply cold weather goosing demand? Sure, that’s one factor. But it’s really all about exports. Just as 2020 cold weather finally arrived in U.S. propane country, exports hit the highest levels ever recorded. December Gulf Coast export volumes — 92% of the U.S. total — are up 21% over last month, and 39% above December 2019. So both international and domestic demand are pulling hard on supplies at the same time. No wonder propane prices are soaring. We started this series on winter 2020-21 supply/demand in late November by suggesting that there could be a few gotchas still out there that were not being reflected in the forward propane market. Well, we’ve now seen one of those gotchas. But there’s a lot of winter left to go — in fact, the official start of winter is this morning! Today, we review what’s happened so far in propane markets, and what could be coming next.
As bitumen production in Alberta’s oil sands has grown over the past decade, so has demand for diluent, which is blended with molasses-like bitumen to help it flow through pipelines or be transported by rail. With bitumen output expected to continue rising through the first half of the 2020s, we have estimated that Alberta demand for field condensate, natural gasoline and other diluent will increase by more than 40% — to almost 1 MMb/d — by 2025. The catch is, diluent production in Western Canada isn’t growing fast enough to keep pace, and there are limits to how much diluent can be imported on the two existing pipelines from the U.S. What if there were a way to slash how much diluent is needed to put bitumen in rail tank cars — and make rail transport safer in the process? Today, we discuss Gibson Energy and US Development Group’s new diluent recovery unit in Hardisty, AB.
The energy world has been turned upside down in 2020 by COVID-19, resulting in the cancellation, scaling back, or deferral of numerous pipeline projects in both the U.S. and Canada. One such deferral involved a planned NGL pipeline that would run through the heart of Alberta’s Montney and Duvernay plays. Originally slated to begin construction earlier this year, a one-year deferral was announced back in May by the joint venture of Canadian midstream players Keyera and Energy Transfer Canada, the latter of which is itself a JV of Energy Transfer and KKR. Since then, a stabilization in energy markets and signs of recovery in Alberta NGL production has provided the co-developers with the confidence to commit to a construction start in 2021. Today, we review the project and what has changed to get it back on track.
Petrochemicals form the backbone of modern consumer society. They provide the plastics and other materials needed to make most of the products we depend on, everything from computers and cellphones to car tires and fertilizer — not to mention N95 masks and other personal protective equipment. Petrochemicals come from crude oil, natural gas, and/or NGLs like ethane and propane, of course, and a good way for an energy-producing area to add value to its raw hydrocarbons is to develop petchem plants nearby. Alberta, Canada’s leading energy-producing province, is making a new push to encourage such projects. Today, we discuss the latest provincial program and what it hopes to accomplish.
Amid all the turmoil and negative news in energy markets this year, U.S. propane has been the exception, turning in a stellar performance. Even with exports up almost 10% in November from the same period last year, averaging 1.3 MMb/d for the month, inventories remain in good shape at 92.6 MMbbl, or about 5% above stocks in November 2019. Part of the reason has been strong production numbers, which are down only 5% since January, and up a whopping 14% since May. Weather has been another contributor to robust stock levels, with November 2020 coming in as one of the warmest on record. But winter is just arriving. And with export volumes now greater than total U.S. winter consumption, market dynamics have shifted. It now takes more inventory in the ground throughout the winter to support the combination of U.S. demand and exports. But how much more inventory is enough? And how should we factor in the potential for further increases in exports? At the same time, the market is still facing the possibility of another round of declining production due to COVID-related drilling cutbacks. This blog series is about making sense of what’s going on in the propane market today, and what may be coming up in the months ahead.
Like everything else in 2020, the propane market has been exceedingly difficult to navigate. So far this year, we’ve seen Mont Belvieu propane prices down to 24 cents/gallon (c/gal) and up to 57 cents. Exports continue to increase, but stocks seem to be reasonably healthy, partly thanks to November so far being one of the warmest on record. Propane production was projected to dip in the fourth quarter but has held up pretty well. During the spring there was considerable concern about the possibility of a tight supply-demand situation this winter, but so far, market conditions seem relatively benign. Does that mean we are in the clear for winter 2020-21? Unfortunately, there may be a few gotchas still out there. As always, a lot depends on the weather. But there are other factors at work that could surprise us because some of the statistics we’ve relied on in the past to gauge what’s ahead are not what they used to be. In today’s blog, we begin a series looking at those factors.
The leaves have already fallen off New England’s trees, the first snow has come and gone, and the six-state region is preparing for another long, cold winter — this time with no Tom Brady and little hope that their beloved Patriots will make it to the playoffs. There is at least some good news, though: record volumes of propane have been railed or shipped into New England and put in storage, which should help to ensure that the many homes and businesses that depend on the fuel for space heating will stay warm. Today, we discuss propane supply and demand in the northeastern corner of the U.S., including a look at SEA-3 Newington — New England’s largest propane storage and distribution center, which rails in the fuel from the Marcellus/Utica and Canada and imports and exports propane by ship.
Over the past 10 years, there’s been a 14-fold increase in U.S. LPG exports: from 132 Mb/d, on average, in 2010 to 1.85 MMb/d so far in 2020. That extraordinary growth in export volumes couldn’t have happened without the development of a lot of new, costly infrastructure — everything from gas processing plants, NGL pipelines, and fractionators to LPG storage capacity, marine terminals, and ocean-going gas carriers. And that build-out continues, not only along the Gulf Coast but on the shores of the Delaware River near Philadelphia. Energy Transfer has been working to expand the throughput of its Marcus Hook terminal on the Pennsylvania side of the river, and Delaware River Partners, an affiliate of Fortress Transportation & Infrastructure, will soon be transloading LPG from rail tank cars onto ships across the Delaware in New Jersey. Today, we discuss Delaware River Partners’ Gibbstown Logistics Center.
Down to only two months left in 2020. Whew! We’ll all be relieved to see this one disappear in the rear-view mirror. It’s been an extreme roller coaster ride for oil and gas — from the onset of the COVID pandemic and the crude price collapse in the spring, to withering demand for transportation fuels, to one hurricane after another, to chaotic swings in natural gas prices. And being thrashed about by all this turmoil are the natural gas liquids, with each NGL product taking its own wild ride through erratic market conditions. It’s been a challenge just keeping up with what is going on. At RBN, we’ve been working on a new app to address this challenge, and today we are rolling it out to you, as a reader of our daily blog. We are talking about access to everything from spot and futures prices, to market statistics, to reports on intra-day pricing, and to market alerts as they happen. Sound interesting? If so, hang on to your hat and read on in this RBN product advertorial.
For the past few years, demand for U.S.-sourced ethane has been on the rise as petrochemical companies in the U.S. and abroad developed new, ethane-only steam crackers and retrofitted existing crackers to allow more ethane to be used as feedstock. U.S. NGL production was increasing too, of course, alongside growth in crude oil-focused plays like the Permian and “wet” gas plays like the Marcellus/Utica. But recently, drilling-and-completion activity has slowed to a crawl and NGL production has been leveling off, which means that less of the ethane that comes out of the ground with oil and gas will be “rejected” into natural gas and more will be separated out at fractionation plants. Today, we conclude a series on ethane exports with a look at U.S. NGL production, ethane supply and demand, ethane exports, and ethane prices.
The U.S. is by far the world’s largest ethane producer, and exports one-seventh of what it produces, with most of the exported volumes tied to long-term contracts to supply ethane-consuming steam crackers. Canada is the #1 importer of U.S. ethane, receiving its volumes via three pipelines. As for U.S. exports by ship, India is on top, followed by the UK and Norway. But watch out! China, which started importing U.S. ethane a year or so ago, is poised to buy a heck of lot more, with most of the incremental volumes to be shipped out of a new ethane export terminal about to come online in Nederland, TX. Today, we continue our series with a look at the Orbit Ethane Export Terminal, which is being jointly developed by Energy Transfer and Satellite Petrochemical, the U.S. subsidiary of a Chinese petrochemical company.
Taken together, the ethane-related infrastructure projects developed in the U.S. over the past several years serve as a reliable feedstock-delivery network for a number of steam crackers in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. NGL pipelines transport y-grade to fractionation hubs, fractionators split the mixed NGLs into ethane and other “purity” products, ethane pipelines move the feedstock to export terminals fitted with the special storage and loading facilities that ethane requires, and a class of cryogenic ships — Very Large Ethane Carriers, or VLECs — sails ethane to mostly long-term customers in distant lands. The end results of all this development are virtual ethane pipelines between, say, the Marcellus/Utica and Scotland, or the Permian and India. Today, we continue our series on ethane exports with a look at the two existing export terminals, the ethane volumes they have been handling, and where all that ethane has been headed.