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.
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Daily energy Posts
For U.S. refineries, the severe demand destruction that occurred this spring led to the worst financial performance in recent history. Not only did refiners produce less diesel, motor gasoline, and jet fuel in the second quarter than any quarter in recent memory, their refining margins were sharply lower than the historical range — a one-two punch that hit their bottom lines hard. The situation has improved somewhat this summer, but it’s still tough out there. So tough, in fact, that it’s reasonable to ask, does the coronavirus and its impacts to the energy sector signal the end of an era for refiners across the U.S.? Today, we review the decline in fuel demand and profitability in the second quarter and discuss the uncertainties refiners face in the second half of 2020 and beyond.
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.
It’s only August, but the folks involved in Permian markets must feel like they’ve already packed in a full year’s worth of action. The events are well known by now, but they’re still remarkable. A crash in refining utilization, followed by massive field shut-ins, all precipitated by a novel virus and exacerbated by some unusual moves by global oil producers. The year’s not over, and the coronavirus hasn’t gone away like a miracle, but a calm has emerged in oil prices that has helped producers get their sea legs. While $40/bbl West Texas Intermediate (WTI) is a far cry from where we started 2020, it’s been just enough to get most of the shut-in crude production back online in West Texas. Today, we provide an update on the status of curtailments in the Permian Basin.
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 collapse in crude oil prices this year hit U.S. producers hard, and forced them to make big cuts in their capital budgets and drilling plans. But it also helped to prove their resilience. Throughout the Shale Era, and especially since the 2014-15 oil price crash, producers have been increasing their productivity and slashing their production costs, enabling most of them to survive even when prices slipped below $30 and $20/bbl for a while. Not all producers are alike, however — neither is all production. Even with oil prices rebounding to about $40/bbl in recent weeks, production based on enhanced oil recovery (EOR) through carbon-dioxide (CO2) “flooding” has become economically challenged, at least for some producers. Can EOR, with its high production costs, survive in a low-price environment? Today, we take a fresh look at EOR in an era of $40/bbl crude.
The global effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 brought the commercial aviation sector to its knees, and slashed demand for jet fuel to its lowest level in 50 years. That, combined with lower demand for motor gasoline and — to a lesser extent — diesel, forced refineries in the U.S. and elsewhere to substantially reduce their crude oil input and to make major changes in their operations, all with the aim of bringing refined product supply and demand into closer balance. After a horrific spring, U.S. jet fuel production and demand have been rebounding somewhat in recent weeks, but getting back to pre-coronavirus levels may take a long time. Today, we review the flight from hell that the jet fuel market has suffered through so far this year, and how it is affecting refineries.
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.
The Northeast natural gas market this past spring and early summer averted a major meltdown, as production shut-ins, record cooling demand, and increased outflows helped the region balance. But the fall shoulder season is liable to be less forgiving, given that storage levels are much higher and carrying a surplus to prior years. Now, shut-in wells are back online for the most part and production has surged. In-region demand has been at record highs, but summer cooling demand will peak soon and give way to balmy fall weather. As that happens, the Northeast will increasingly rely on outbound flows to offset a growing supply imbalance. But pipeline capacity utilization for routes moving gas out of the region have been running high already. How much incremental volumes can the takeaway pipelines absorb before constraints develop and hammer regional supply prices? Today, we analyze flows and capacity out of the region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undone a number of long-standing energy-market expectations. Just a few months ago, U.S. crude oil production was hitting new heights, export volumes were rising fast, and producers, shippers, and others were worried whether there would be sufficient marine-terminal capacity in place. Now, crude production is down sharply, and while crude exports have held up during this year’s market turmoil, the old belief that exports would keep rising through the early 2020s is out the window. Where does that change in expectations leave all those crude export terminals along the Gulf Coast, many of which were recently built or expanded to help handle the flood of crude that was supposed to be heading their way? Today, we discuss highlights from RBN’s new Drill Down Report on crude-handling marine facilities along the Texas and Louisiana coast.
As the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to rise, so does the oil patch’s apprehension that crude oil prices could be poised to take another hit. If that happens, producers would have to review, yet again, their plans for optimizing production as best they can, given their pricing outlook. But producers do not all receive uniform prices reflecting NYMEX WTI for their physical barrels — far from it. Crude quality and proximity to a demand market can make a big difference in the price that the barrels will ultimately sell for. Price reporting agencies (PRAs) such as Argus and Platts track and publish these differentials. But how are those differentials calculated and how do they affect producers? Today, we discuss crude differentials and their impact.
The fundamental drivers of global energy markets are shifting as the world begins to recover from the crisis induced by COVID-19. North American natural gas markets have been upended this year by a multitude of events, chief among them the plunge in crude oil prices and a dramatic drop in LNG exports. Other smaller, yet relevant, factors have been gyrating as well, including natural gas exports to Mexico by pipeline. After climbing to new highs last fall, piped gas exports to our southern neighbor suffered significantly during the worst of this spring’s series of calamities, but things are looking up. Total exports across the border have reached new highs this month, with just-completed infrastructure in Mexico assisting in the jump. Perhaps things are getting back to normal, at least in this small corner of the energy markets. Today, we provide an update on exports of natural gas from the U.S. to Mexico.
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.
U.S. Northeast natural gas production has surged nearly 1.5 Bcf/d in the past four weeks as wells that were shut-in this spring came back to life. The supply gains have been matched by strong intraregional demand, which has posted at or near record highs on a monthly average basis in recent months. But the returning supply volumes raise the question: what happens when summer cooling demand begins to fade? Storage will only be able to absorb so much, as regional storage inventories are already well above year-ago levels and the historical average for this time of year. That leaves flows out of the region as the only other outlet for excess supply, and those may be limited as well, as pipeline issues and drastically reduced downstream demand from LNG exports have stymied outflows. So, is the Northeast gas market headed for a shoulder-season meltdown? Appalachian gas supply prices this month already have weakened relative to the national benchmark Henry Hub, and these dynamics suggest there is more tumult ahead. Today, we consider what’s in store for the Northeast gas market this fall given the latest fundamentals.
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.