Alkylate is an important and valuable part of the U.S. gasoline pool, prized for its high octane, low volatility and low sulfur content. There are two primary catalysts that refiners can opt to use in the production of alkylate: hydrofluoric acid, or HF, and sulfur acid, or H2SO4. Each is quite popular, with HF and sulfuric acid technologies each representing about half of domestic alkylation capacity — and with those shares varying significantly on a regional basis. While refiners have been safely operating both types of “alky” units for many decades, HF alkylation for some time has been in the crosshairs of the Environmental Protection Agency, which recently proposed that refiners be required to undertake extensive evaluations of potentially safer alternative technologies. It’s hard to know for sure, but if EPA’s proposed rule is made final it could ultimately force many refineries to make very costly changes — into the hundreds of million dollars per unit — or maybe even shut down entirely. In today’s RBN blog, we look at alkylate, how it’s made, and the potentially profound effects of the impending regulation.
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Daily Energy Blog
Shell’s new, multibillion-dollar steam cracker in Monaca, PA — the first of its kind in the Marcellus/Utica shale play — is finally up and running and breathing new life into a small town on the Ohio River. When it’s running flat-out, the cracker will churn out up to 9 million pounds of ethylene a day to supply three adjoining polyethylene units. Shell Polymers Monaca, as the petrochemicals complex is formally known, is a world-scale giant, consuming about 95 Mb/d of ethane, which raises this question: How is the start-up of the region’s only large ethane consumer affecting the broader market? In today’s RBN blog, we provide the answer.
The official start of propane heating season is only two months away, and inventories are skinny, pretty close to the five-year minimum. Should that be a concern? After all, stocks were at the low end of the range last year, and it was a relatively benign market, with few supply chain disruptions. But there’s a potential gotcha in that statement. Because last year the first three months of winter were quite mild in propane country. What would happen if the market were hit with weather events like what we saw during the “polar vortex” of 2013-14, a winter etched into the minds of all propaners who lived through it? Obviously, the outcome would be quite different. In today’s RBN blog, we continue our series on the upcoming propane heating season with a look at the challenges that unusually cold weather could bring.
We are only two months away from the official start of propane heating season in the U.S., and inventories are 3.5 MMbbl lower than last year, or 2.6 MMbbl below the five-year week-on-week low. Volumetrically, it’s a story very much like last summer: Propane exports are running high and while production is up it’s not increasing fast enough to get inventories back to where we would like to see them. But propane prices are not behaving at all like last year. At this point in 2021, the price of propane was moving higher, both in absolute terms and relative to the price of crude oil. This year, prices have been falling for the past four months and are much weaker relative to crude than a year ago. With low inventories and low prices, what are the prospects for the propane market being prepared for the upcoming heating season? And what are the risks if there's a cold-weather surprise? We’ll consider those issues and more in the blog series we begin today, focusing first on how we got here.
Western Canada’s propane market has been rapidly evolving in the past few years. Rising Canadian demand for propane and direct exports to Asia from British Columbia’s (BC) two export terminals have been jockeying for supremacy with railed propane exports to the U.S. Those exports to Asia and the U.S. will soon be facing another challenge: the pending startup of Inter Pipeline’s Heartland Petrochemical Complex, which will increase propane demand in Western Canada by a hefty 22 Mb/d in the coming weeks. In today’s RBN blog, we look at what it could mean for propane exports to the U.S., which has traditionally depended on an assist from Canadian volumes.
That crazy little ethane molecule is at it again. Yesterday the price blasted to 67.875 c/gal, a level last seen on January 17, 2012. Petchem cracker margins are low. Production is up, but inventories are down. A big driver of the bedlam is the price of natural gas, trading in the $7-$9/MMBtu range for the past month. But as usual with ethane, there’s a lot more happening below the surface — including high domestic demand, growing export volumes, and significant developments in downstream petrochemical markets — all shaking things up. Looking ahead, uncertainty looms, with more export capacity, ever-changing ethane rejection economics, and uneven production growth. In today’s RBN blog, we’ll leap back into the ethane market to see what’s been going on, and where ethane is headed over the next few years.
It’s no secret that higher gasoline prices are a problem for a lot of folks, including everyday drivers, businesses and — maybe especially — the politicians who hear the complaints from the first two. Although prices at the pump have been trending higher for some time, they’ve really come to the forefront in the past several weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has stressed global energy markets and sent U.S. officials looking for any and all options to keep a lid on prices. In today’s RBN blog, we look at President Biden’s decision to allow the sale of E15 gasoline during the summer months, whether it’s likely to provide U.S. drivers significant relief from high prices this summer, and how global pressures are moving ethanol prices higher too.
It burns just like propane, smells just like propane, and gets transported just like propane. But instead of being extracted at gas processing plants or refineries, it is produced from renewable feedstocks like used cooking oil or soybean oil, and so it has a low carbon intensity. That means it is eligible for low-carbon fuel credits, like those available in California. Renewable propane has been around for years but has never gotten much traction due to a combination of technical and economic issues. Now that is changing, with a deal announced last week by a major propane retailer and a biorefiner showing the way to a win-win-win for the producer, the marketer, and the environment. In today’s RBN blog, we begin a deep-dive series on where renewable propane comes from, why it has been a challenge to get the market going, and what changes may create significant opportunities across the renewable propane value chain.
With Alberta’s bitumen production rising to record levels of late, finding more ways to export this molasses-like heavy oil has become more important than ever. In early 2020, Gibson Energy and US Development Group embarked on the construction of a diluent recovery unit in Hardisty, AB, to greatly reduce the need for diluent and retain more of it for reuse. With the unit’s commercial start-up at the end of 2021, another unique pathway for transporting Canadian bitumen to the U.S. Gulf Coast — and, possibly, overseas markets — has become a reality. In today’s RBN blog, we provide an update on this venture and discuss where it might lead next.
Way back in the spring of this year, propane prices were behaving themselves. Mont Belvieu values were high relative to the previous two years, but no higher than what they ought to be with crude oil up to the mid-$70s/bbl range, as it was back then. Yet, market players were uncomfortable. Production was flat, exports were strong, and inventories were not increasing fast enough to get balances where they needed to be by winter. At that point the market got nervous and started bidding the price of propane higher. When exports continued at high rates and it looked like $100/bbl crude was a real possibility, propane buyers went into a feeding frenzy, and by early October propane prices blasted to levels not seen in a decade. Then the market calmed down. Weekly inventory numbers from EIA started to look like they might be OK after all, exports backed off, and propane prices started to decline. That’s supposed to happen toward the end of heating season, not at the beginning. The frenzy soon turned into a rout in a counter-seasonal price move egged on by concern about the COVID-Omicron variant that saw propane collapsing by 35% over a five-week period. All that price action happened during the summer and fall, instead of during the winter, as it usually does. We just got ahead of ourselves. So, what happens next? That is what we will consider in today’s RBN blog, which is Part 2 of our Different Drum NGL blog series.
If there was ever a year that proves NGLs march to the beat of a different drummer, 2021 was it. Compared to pre-pandemic volumes, production is up, not down. It’s the same story for exports. Price behavior has been even more extraordinary. We’ve seen startling counter-seasonal price swings in propane and butane markets. Ethane has been dancing to the tune of volatile natural gas prices. The wackiness has even extended to natural gasoline, which this summer enjoyed seven weeks as the preferred feedstock for U.S. flexible steam crackers. Heck, it’s not even winter yet. And 2022 is likely to be every bit as chaotic. In today’s RBN blog, we begin a blog series discussing recent developments in NGL markets and take a look at what lies ahead.
It wasn’t that long ago that Western Canada was awash in propane, sending the vast surplus for export by railcar to the U.S. That has changed in the past two years as direct exports to Asia opened up and Canada’s domestic demand for propane rose. With supplies becoming tighter, the combined effect with increasing demand spells trouble for higher exports to the U.S. this winter, a time when they are desperately needed. In today’s RBN blog, we explore the current Western Canadian propane market and what might be next in store.
The high-demand season for propane is just around the corner: crop drying, then winter heating demand. This is when propane marketers make most of their money; so under normal circumstances it’s a happy time, when all participants across the supply chain are making last-minute preparations for the season of peak propane demand. But this year is different. There is palpable concern in the market about the level of inventories available to meet demand, and the possibility that propane could be in short supply. How could this be? As we have covered many times in the RBN blogosphere, U.S. propane production is more than double domestic demand. So how could a shortage possibly happen? The answer is pretty simple: exports. The U.S. exports more of its propane production than it uses here at home. This year the domestic market needs more barrels, so all that needs to happen is for U.S. prices to increase enough to shut off exports, right? Wrong. Propane prices have been spiraling up all year, and August prices are higher than they’ve been since 2013. But exports are still running strong, and so far, inventories are not building fast enough. In today’s blog, we’ll look at the drivers behind this seeming market aberration and consider why the upcoming winter season looks like uncharted territory for propane marketers.
Supplies of natural gas liquids, especially propane, have become increasingly tight in recent months, with prices reaching multi-year highs in the U.S. and Canada. Despite the strong price signals, increasing production is typically a lengthy, complex, and expensive process involving producers drilling new wells to yield more liquids-rich natural gas and crude oil. There is also another way to increase supplies: by extracting them from already processed and pipelined natural gas via a straddle plant that more intensively recovers additional NGLs, such as propane, from the existing gas supply. Canada’s Wolf Midstream has recently sanctioned such a plant, as well as a related pipeline and extraction plant in Alberta that it hopes to bring into service in 2023. In today’s blog, we examine this new straddle plant and Western Canada’s current propane supply situation.
The EIA report on propane inventories that came out yesterday was a shocker. This time of year, stocks are supposed to be building toward the levels needed to get U.S. propane markets through the winter season. But the numbers released on Wednesday showed an inventory decline, resulting in inventory balances now below the five-year minimum. The culprit, of course, is exports, with 1.4 MMb/d of them reported last week, a 17% gain over the year-to-date average. And these cargoes to overseas markets are happening even with propane prices in the stratosphere: more than double where they stood this time last year. Propane marketers were hoping that higher prices would slow down exports, but so far that is not happening. In today’s blog, we examine U.S. exports of LPG — propane plus butane — and discuss what may be ahead for these markets.
Fourth of July skyrockets were not the only fireworks earlier this week. The price of propane skyrocketed up to 112 c/gal before the holiday weekend and held at that level through Tuesday, an increase of about 21 c/gal or 23% over the past month alone. To put that in perspective, that’s the highest price for propane since April 2014, back when crude oil was over $100/bbl. Although propane came off a few cents on Wednesday in sympathy with falling crude prices, both Mont Belvieu and Conway propane prices are still almost 135% higher than this time last year. Assuming crude prices don’t fall off a cliff, how high could propane prices go? Hard to say. The propane market is experiencing unusually low inventories, relatively modest production growth, near record-high export volumes, and unconstrained dock capacity. Consequently, if we continue to see strong demand, but U.S. producers stay focused on capital discipline, thus constraining production, propane prices could be headed considerably higher this winter. Today, we continue our series of deep dives into the U.S. propane market and, in a blatant advertorial, describe how you can keep up with this rapidly moving market with RBN’s new Propane Billboard report and dataset.