RBN Energy

There’s never been any reason to question the drivers for energy infrastructure development — until now.  Historically, the drivers were almost always “supply-push.” The Shale Revolution brought on increasing production volumes that needed to be moved to market, and midstreamers — backed by producer commitments — responded with the infrastructure to make it happen. But now things seem to be different. U.S. energy infrastructure investment is soaring across crude oil, natural gas and NGL markets and, as in previous buildouts, midstreamers are bringing on new processing plants, pipelines, fractionators, storage facilities, export terminals and everything in between. We count nearly 70 projects in the works. But crude production has been flat as a pancake, natural gas is down, and lately NGLs are up — but as you might expect, only in one basin: the Permian. So what is driving all the infrastructure development this time around? In today’s RBN blog, we’ll explore why that question will be front-and-center at our upcoming School of Energy: Catch a Wave. Fair warning, this blog includes an unabashed advertorial for our 2024 conference coming up on June 26-27 in Houston. 

Analyst Insights

Analyst Insights are unique perspectives provided by RBN analysts about energy markets developments. The Insights may cover a wide range of information, such as industry trends, fundamentals, competitive landscape, or other market rumblings. These Insights are designed to be bite-size but punchy analysis so that readers can stay abreast of the most important market changes.

By Sheela Tobben - Wednesday, 6/19/2024 (7:30 am)

The operator of the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) pipeline plans to amend certain quality rules for heavy crude from September 1 after complaints from shippers and buyers of oil on the system that began service in May. 

By Sheela Tobben - Tuesday, 6/18/2024 (3:45 pm)

Genesis Energy’s Cameron Highway Oil Pipeline System (CHOPS) is expected to be shut in October for two weeks of planned work. It’s not clear if the entire system will be down all at once, or if segments will be worked on in phases.

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Daily Energy Blog

The Permian is in the midst of an NGL infrastructure boom as midstream companies are investing to keep up with the strong production growth projected over the next several years — but until these new projects are up and running, NGL pipeline capacity to the Gulf Coast is only going to get tighter. In today’s RBN blog, we look at five pipeline projects that are under construction or in the planning process that would significantly boost NGL takeaway capacity out of the Permian.

It may be hard to believe, given the furnace-like temperatures that many of us have been dealing with the past few weeks, but the 2023-24 propane heating season is on the horizon — its official start is October 1, only seven weeks away. To quote Bill and Ted from their Excellent Adventure movie franchise, it could be argued that, for the U.S. propane market, “The best place to be is here. The best time to be is now.” Production is at or near an all-time high — so are exports. Propane inventories are well above their five-year average, which should help ward off winter-supply concerns. And propane prices? They’re up from where they were a few weeks ago, but only in the 70-cents/gal range, well below the $1/gal-plus levels that were the norm between Q3 2021 and Q3 2022. The temptation may be to yell, “Party on, dudes!”, but as we discuss in today’s RBN blog, the reality is, the propane market is an ongoing and unpredictable adventure, and you never know for sure what’s ahead.

Enterprise Products Partners doesn’t just extract mixed NGLs from associated gas at processing plants, transport that Y-grade to the NGL hub at Mont Belvieu, and fractionate NGLs into “purity products” like ethane, propane and butanes. The midstream giant also distributes purity products to Gulf Coast steam crackers and refineries, converts propane to propylene at its two propane dehydrogenation (PDH) plants, distributes ethylene and propylene, transports propane and butane to wholesale markets across much of the eastern half of the U.S., and exports a wide range of products — ethane, LPG, ethylene and propylene among them — from two Enterprise marine terminals on the Houston Ship Channel. (Another export terminal in Beaumont, TX, is in the works.) Talk about a value chain! In today’s RBN blog, we continue our series on NGL networks with a look at Enterprise’s NGL and petrochemical production, distribution and export assets.

In just over a month, the price of Mont Belvieu purity ethane doubled, from 19 c/gal to 39 c/gal on Friday. Sure, the price of natural gas was up about 15% over the same period. But that increase was nowhere near ethane’s, so it was certainly not the price of gas that was making ethane take off. In fact, with ethane rocketing into space and gas prices still in the dumper, the ethane-to-gas ratio — a key measure of the value of ethane — skyrocketed, soaring from 1.2X in mid-June to 2.2X on Friday. A ratio at this level has only happened twice before in the past decade: once in 2018 due to a collision between fractionation capacity and new petchem plants coming online, and then again in 2020 during the COVID petchem demand surge. But the most recent price surge didn’t last long. On Tuesday ethane came back to earth, crashing 22% in a single day, and the ethane-to-gas ratio deflated down to 1.6X. So what’s happening? There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there that we won’t repeat here. Instead, in today’s RBN blog, we’ll lay out what we think are the most likely contributing factors behind this wild ride.

Less than a handful of U.S. midstream companies own and operate extensive NGL networks that do it all: extract mixed NGLs from associated gas at their processing plants, transport that “Y-grade” to their underground salt-cavern storage facilities in Mont Belvieu, fractionate mixed NGLs into so-called “purity products” at their fractionators, then pipe that ethane, LPG and other products either to domestic end-users or to company-owned export docks. Enterprise Products Partners is a member of that select group and, as we discuss in today’s RBN blog, its NGL network — which stretches from Appalachia to the Permian to the Rockies — is the most extensive.

Crude oil production in the Permian continues to grow, gas-to-oil ratios in the basin are on the rise, and a slew of new gas processing plants are coming online, extracting more and more NGLs that need to be transported, fractionated and shipped to end-users. Targa Resources, with its full slate of NGL-related assets — gathering systems, processing plants, NGL pipelines, fractionators and an LPG terminal — is a big winner in all this. In today’s RBN blog, we continue our series on the U.S.’s robust and growing NGL networks with a look at Targa’s array of assets in the Permian and other production areas.

Natural gas and NGL production growth in the Marcellus/Utica slowed and then leveled off in the early 2020s, largely due to gas-pipeline takeaway constraints. Still, the Northeast remains a key supplier of natural gas and NGL “purity products,” and Energy Transfer’s NGL pipelines and Philadelphia-area marine terminal continue to play critical roles in balancing the region’s ethane and LPG markets. In today’s RBN blog, we continue our series on the U.S.’s robust-and-growing networks of NGL pipelines, fractionators and export terminals, this time with a look at Energy Transfer’s Mariner West and Mariner East pipeline systems and the company’s Marcus Hook terminal.

U.S. production of natural gas liquids and NGL “purity products” continues to rise (aside from occasional hiccups) and domestic demand for the commodities remains flat, so — you know what’s coming — the vast majority of incremental output of ethane, LPG and natural gasoline is headed for export docks. That’s good news, and so is the fact that the midstream sector has the infrastructure in place — or under development — to handle the increasing volumes of NGLs coming their way. In today’s RBN blog, we begin a series on the U.S.’s robust-and-growing networks of NGL pipelines, fractionators and export terminals, starting with a look at Energy Transfer’s “well-to-water” system for NGL gathering, processing, transportation, fractionation, storage and shipment in Texas.

Canada has been exporting propane from marine terminals in British Columbia (BC) to Asian markets since May 2019 and, despite modest propane production volumes, it has become an integral part of the global market — Japan, for example, depends on Canada for one-ninth of its LPG. Now, the companies that co-own the larger of BC’s two LPG export terminals are planning yet another facility next door that would enable Canadian propane exports to Asia to double over the next few years. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the AltaGas/Royal Vopak plan and its implications for Canadian producers and LPG consumers in Canada, the U.S. and Asia.

U.S. propane stocks are high, 33% over the 5-year average. Year-to-date propane exports are at a robust 1.6 MMb/d, well above the 1.4 MMb/d shipped out in 2022. Increasing propane production must be driving the growth in inventories and exports, right? Nay! Propane production is actually down, falling 9% from September 2022 to December, and even with meager growth this year is still 3% below the September high. So where are the propane export and inventory barrels coming from? And what does this mystery reveal about the trajectory of propane production over the next year or two? In today’s RBN blog, we do some sleuthing and come up with some answers.

What’s the fastest-growing U.S. hydrocarbon? You guessed it — ethane. Since 2016, ethane production has grown at almost 2.5 times the rate of crude oil or natural gas and 1.5X that of other natural gas liquids (NGLs). And there’s a lot more upside potential where that came from. It’s entirely demand-pull, meaning that U.S. ethane production growth is being driven by increasing domestic and export demand for the petrochemical feedstock. Shell’s new steam cracker in Pennsylvania is online, CP Chem and Qatar Energy are planning a new cracker in Orange, TX, and other projects are in the works. On the exports front, both Enterprise and Energy Transfer announced export-terminal-expansion projects in 2022. All this new ethane demand needs supply, and fortunately the U.S. has the barrels, not only from ever-increasing NGL production, but also from ethane that today is being rejected and sold as natural gas. And the markets will need new pipes, fractionators, and ships to get that ethane to market. With today’s RBN blog, we begin a series to explore what these developments mean for U.S. ethane market players.

Since the advent of the Shale Revolution way back in 2008, U.S. production of natural gas liquids from gas processing has grown pretty much non-stop, from an annual average of 1.8 MMb/d 15 years ago to 5.9 MMb/d in 2022 — a 9% compound annual growth rate. Today, NGL production exceeds 6.1 MMb/d and that number might be even higher if the glut of supply wasn’t depressing prices and discouraging the recovery of a lot of ethane. All that production has major implications for domestic pricing, upstream economics, midstream infrastructure, and downstream consumers like petrochemicals, not to mention international markets, which now receive roughly 40% of U.S. output. In today’s RBN blog, we examine what’s causing NGL production to continually increase.

Winter arrived early in many parts of the U.S. this year, with frigid temperatures and, in some places, snow measured in feet, not inches. Propane demand for heating is up, but surprisingly, inventories are high, prices are low and the outlook for the rest of the winter looks good. And propane just dodged a hail of bullets when Congress legislated away what had been a likely rail strike. Is it too early for propane marketeers to be dancing in the aisles about what looks like a safe outlook for winter season supplies? That’s the big question. Because spring is still more than three months away. And it’s a fact that sustained cold weather, logistical challenges and other factors can wreak havoc with any propane market. In today’s RBN blog, we examine the current state of the U.S. propane market, why things have improved so dramatically and, of course, what could still go wrong.

Over the past nine months, the frac spread —a rough-cut measure of the value of extracting NGLs from raw gas at gas processing plants — has taken a terrifying plunge, from $9.82/MMBtu in early March to only $2.16/MMBtu on Monday. Given that the frac spread is the differential between the price of natural gas and the weighted average price of a typical barrel of NGLs on a dollars-per-MMBtu basis, a 78% nosedive like that suggests that something is seriously out of whack, and that at least some market players are taking a real hit financially. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the frac spread, the drivers behind its recent freefall, and what it would take for gas processing margins to rebound.

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.