The rig count in the Niobrara Shale’s Denver-Julesburg (DJ) Basin has doubled in the past year, and crude oil production has been rebounding modestly in recent months. Most of the activity in the play is concentrated in super-hot Weld County, CO, where 23 of the DJ Basin’s 29 active rigs are set up. But with crude prices below $50/barrel, will the DJ make a real comeback, or will production sag again, just like it did after the big price declines of 2014-15? And what about Niobrara-related midstream infrastructure? Even some of the more optimistic forecasts leave the region with far more pipeline takeaway capacity than it needs. Today we consider recent developments in the Rocky Mountain region’s most important shale play and what they mean for exploration and production companies and midstreamers.
Daily energy Posts
The ratio of NGL-to-crude oil prices looks like it will be rebounding, and over the next two or three years could rise to levels not seen since the Shale Revolution brought down NGL prices at the end of 2012, a signal that all of the new NGL-consuming petrochemical cracker projects now under construction may not be as lucrative as their developers had once hoped. Several factors are driving the ratio’s rise: increasing U.S. demand for NGLs; more exports; stubbornly low crude oil prices and a lower trajectory of NGL production growth. Today, we examine the historical relationship between NGL and crude oil prices and the reasons why that ratio may be headed back above 50%.
We are rapidly approaching September 15, when summer blend motor gasoline changes over to winter blend, allowing the increased use of high vapor pressure normal butane in the blending. However, the spread between Reformulated Blendstock for Oxygenate Blending (RBOB, the benchmark unleaded gasoline) and normal butane was down to 85 cents/gal as of the end of August, reducing the incentive to blend as much butane into motor gasoline as possible to its lowest level in recent years. Sure, 85 cents/gal is still 85 cents. But what impact might that smaller RBOB/normal butane spread and other market factors have on butane exports? Today we examine the state of the gasoline blending and normal butane markets, and the effect that current dynamics –– a gasoline glut and strong butane prices among them –– may have.
NOVA Chemicals’ 1.8-billion-pound/year ethylene plant in Sarnia, ON already is one of the largest consumers of Marcellus/Utica-sourced ethane, and plans are in the works to significantly increase the steam cracker’s ethane consumption. In 2018, NOVA will complete a project that will enable the cracker to be fed 100% ethane; the petrochemical company also is mulling a cracker expansion –– again with ethane as the feedstock –– and a new polyethylene plant next door. All these plans are driven in large part by the availability of low-cost ethane piped from the U.S. Northeast. Today, we continue our review of southwestern Ontario’s NGL, petchem and refining infrastructure with a look at the big effects of NOVA’s plans.
The availability of vast amounts of ethane from the nearby “wet” Marcellus and Utica plays is spurring a petrochemical rejuvenation in Sarnia, ON. Two years ago NOVA Chemicals stopped using naphtha as a feedstock at its 1.8 billion pound/year ethylene plant in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley and now relies on a combination of ethane, propane and butane. Next year the company is planning to complete the plant’s conversion to 100% ethane and is considering the possibility of building a big polyethylene plant nearby. Today, we continue our comprehensive review of southwestern Ontario’s NGL, petchem and refining infrastructure, including Sarnia’s NGL fractionation, storage and end-use markets.
U.S. propane production from natural gas processing has doubled over the past five years, but domestic demand has hardly moved the needle. So the only way the propane market has balanced is through exports, and it is no overstatement to say that the ship has really come in for U.S. propane exporters. All those exports have also helped support the U.S.
This week the first Gulf Coast ethane export cargo will depart Morgan’s Point, Enterprise Products Partners’ new export terminal on the Houston Ship Channel. This is a history-making event for at least three reasons. First, it inaugurates ethane exports from the Gulf Coast, only five months after the first-ever U.S. overseas ethane exports out of Sunoco Logistics’ Marcus Hook, PA, terminal. Second, it launches a battle for Mont Belvieu ethane, to be fought between ethane exporters and new ethane-only steam crackers (ethylene plants) that will be coming online along the Texas/Louisiana coast over the next couple of years. And third, Morgan’s Point is not just another export terminal. It is a location steeped in Texas history, known in the 1830s as New Washington, with an important role in the Battle of San Jacinto – decisive battle of the Texas Revolution -- and legend has it, inextricably tied to the Texas anthem “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” In today’s blog we examine the upcoming fight between ethane exporters and U.S. crackers.
Sarnia, ON is one of Canada’s leading refinery and petrochemical centers, and for good reason. From the start –– 158 years ago, with what Canadians claim to be the world’s first oil well in the Western Hemisphere –– the Sarnia area has had geology and geography on its side, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s within 500 miles of more than half the people in North America. But the interconnecting infrastructure that drives Sarnia’s Chemical Valley isn’t nearly as well known or understood as the pipelines, railroads, storage and refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Also, it should be noted, Sarnia has become one of the biggest beneficiaries of Marcellus/Utica production of ethane and other natural gas liquids, the mother’s milk of the petchem sector. That alone makes it worth discussing. Today, we begin a series on a lynchpin of Canada’s hydrocarbon production and processing sector.
Crude oil has always been the big draw for producers in the Permian –– and in the especially prolific Delaware Basin within the Permian –– but the wells there also produce large volumes of “wet” natural gas that needs to be gathered, processed and transported to market. A lot’s been written about the Permian’s still-strong oil production and the infrastructure developed to support it; we’ve also covered natural gas liquids (NGLs) in the play. Now it’s time to delve into the gas processing and gas pipeline capacity out of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, including pipes into the increasingly important Mexican market. Today, we discuss recent developments on the gas side of the U.S.’s hottest (remaining) oil production area.
Whether or not Shell Chemicals follows through on its plan to build a $6 billion ethylene plant near Pittsburgh, PA –– and when that steam cracker comes online –– will have a significant impact on the U.S. ethane, ethylene and polyethylene markets. By consuming an estimated 90-100 Mb/d of ethane, the cracker’s operation would reduce the volume of ethane that needs to be moved out of the “wet” Marcellus/Utica production area, trim the amount of ethane available for export from marine terminals, and likely push ethane prices higher than they would otherwise be. Today, we examine what’s driving plans for the Northeast’s first cracker, and what effects the plant will have.
Canadian ethylene plants have been receiving U.S.-sourced ethane by pipeline for two and a half years now, and waterborne ethane exports from Marcus Hook, PA to Norway started earlier in 2016. Soon the real fun will begin, when Enterprise Products Partners initiates (and quickly ramps up) ethane exports from a new, 200 Mb/d terminal on the Houston Ship Channel at Morgan’s Point. The destinations of the ships leaving Morgan’s Point are likely to be places like India, Brazil, Europe, and maybe even Mexico. Today, we consider the imminent bump-up in U.S. ethane export capacity, the international markets ethane will be headed to in the near-term, and the longer-term question about how much ethane exports can grow.
The U.S. Northeast now produces all the propane and butane it needs on an annual basis (Energy Information Administration - EIA PADD 1 plus Utica production from Ohio), but the seasonal nature of the region’s demand—and a dearth of in-region storage—means a lot of the natural gas liquid (NGL) production needs to be railed to storage facilities elsewhere during the warmer months, then be moved back in to meet wintertime needs. This propane/butane back-and-forth raises costs and reduces producer netbacks. Surely there is a better way. Today, we continue our review of NGL storage (or the lack thereof) in the Northeast, and how proposed NGL storage facilities in the region might help.
Every day, the “wet” Marcellus and Utica shale plays are producing significant volumes of ethane, all of which needs to be moved out of regional plants, fractionators and de-ethanizers immediately, either by “rejection” into natural gas or on pipelines to the Gulf Coast, Ontario, or to an export terminal in Marcus Hook, PA. A leading midstream company—MPLX’s MarkWest subsidiary—has developed an ingenious, integrated approach for handling much of that ethane (and dealing with any disruptions), but its ethane-management system is not a regional cure-all, and the likely development of an ethylene plant in the heart of the Marcellus/Utica would only increase the region’s ethane-handling needs. Today, we continue our examination of natural gas liquids (NGL) storage needs in the Northeast with a look at how nearby ethane storage might help midstream companies that are not integral parts of MarkWest’s “ethane loop.”
Ever-increasing production of natural gas liquids (NGLs) in the U.S. Northeast is highlighting—and exacerbating—what has always been a challenge for the region: a serious lack of nearby NGL storage capacity. In the years before NGL production took off in the “wet” Marcellus and Utica shale plays, this storage shortfall mainly affected propane and butane, with their very seasonal demand; the lack of Northeast NGL storage required a huge wintertime influx of propane and additional butane that had been stockpiled elsewhere. More recently, with Northeast NGL production booming, propane and butane barrels need to be moved out of the region by rail during the non-winter months and be railed back when the weather turns colder and motor gasoline blending limits are higher—killing producer netbacks in the process. Add to that a new (and equally vexing) challenge: dealing with the vast quantities of ethane being produced in the wet Marcellus/Utica. There is currently no in-region demand for ethane and (unlike propane and butane) you can’t just load surplus purity ethane onto rail cars. Today, we begin a series on the need for more NGL storage in the Northeast, and the pros and cons of a specific proposed storage project.
Shell Chemicals is taking steps that suggest it finally may be ready to pull the trigger on a long-debated petrochemical complex which would include an ethylene plant (steam cracker) and three polyethylene units in the heart of the “wet” Marcellus/Utica natural gas liquids production region. If the $3+ billion project advances to construction soon, it would significantly impact ethane market dynamics, not just in Ohio/Pennsylvania/West Virginia but along the Gulf Coast too. And if it turns out we’re in for extended stagnation in drilling and production, the Shell cracker also may undermine plans to build additional NGL pipeline capacity out of the Marcellus/Utica—or any other cracker there. Today we discuss the likelihood of Shell proceeding with its Beaver County, PA cracker and the effects the project’s development might have.
Fueled by soaring domestic production of natural gas liquids (NGLs) like propane and butane, U.S. liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) export volumes the past three years have rocketed to the top, surpassing exports by the old Big Three of LPG: United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Algeria. But that rise in LPG exports may be ending, and the share of exports made from Gulf Coast docks may be in for a decline. More propane and butane will be pulled from the Marcellus and Utica to the docks at Marcus Hook, PA, and demand for propane on the Gulf Coast—from new propane dehydrogenation plants and flexible steam crackers—will be climbing. That suggests that less LPG may need to be exported from the Gulf Coast to keep the market in balance. In today’s blog we continue our look at the soon-to-open Panama Canal expansion with an updated examination of U.S. LPG export terminals along the Gulf Coast.