Natural Gas Liquids

It’s the 10-year anniversary of a polar vortex winter that’s seared into the memories of every propaner who lived through it. Shortages. High prices. Government inquiries. Sure, there were difficulties during that winter in the markets for natural gas and fuel oil too, but it was particularly bad for propane. It seemed like a perfect storm hit the propane market right where it hurt the most — in the heart of propane country: the Upper Midwest and the Northeast. A lot has changed since then, but it’s important to look back at what went wrong, what’s been done to make a repeat of that chaotic winter far less likely, and what those events still mean for the propane market today. 

Since the start of the Shale Revolution 15 years ago, U.S. NGL production has increased by an extraordinary 260% to more than 6.5 MMb/d. And it’s not just NGL production that’s up sharply. So are exports of NGL purity products, especially LPG (propane and normal butane) and ethane. All that growth — and the growth that’s still to come — wouldn’t be possible without a seemingly non-stop expansion of NGL-related infrastructure. Everything from gas processing plants and NGL pipelines to salt-dome storage, fractionators and export docks. And much of that infrastructure is in the hands of just a few large midstream companies that over the years have developed “well-to-water” NGL networks that enable their owners to collect multiple fees along the NGL value chain. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss highlights from our new Drill Down Report on NGL networks. 

U.S. Gulf Coast LPG exports are sky-high, averaging just under 2 MMb/d in October, with nearly two-thirds of those volumes bound for Asia — a straight-shot trip once a Very Large Gas Carrier (VLGC) has passed through the Panama Canal. But an unprecedented dry spell has left the canal’s operators — and LPG shippers — in a real bind. The century-old maritime shortcut, which was expanded just a few years ago to accommodate more and larger vessels, uses massive amounts of fresh water, and to help conserve what’s left in the system’s main reservoir, the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) is ratcheting down how many ships can pass through each day. Worse yet, VLGCs are a low priority compared to other, larger vessels that pay higher tolls. That means that far fewer Asia-bound LPG ships will be using the Panama Canal for who knows how long. Instead, many shippers will need to make far longer, more costly trips through the Suez Canal or around the southern tip of Africa. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss what LPG shippers in particular are up against.

Crude-oil-focused production growth in the Permian is generating increasing volumes of associated gas that need to be processed and mixed NGLs that need to be piped to Mont Belvieu, fractionated and exported. All that suggests the need for still more infrastructure — processing plants, NGL pipelines, fractionators and export facilities — and Enterprise Products Partners, a top-tier NGL midstreamer, recently laid out a multibillion-dollar plan to help Permian producers keep pace. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the new set of projects Enterprise has in the works. 

Phillips 66 is probably best known for its fleet of complex refineries, but the Houston-based company also is involved in marketing, chemicals and midstream services. In fact, P66 is one of only a handful of midstreamers offering the full range of “well-to-market” or “well-to-water” NGL services — everything from associated-gas gathering systems and gas processing to NGL pipelines, storage, fractionators and export facilities. And P66’s standing among NGL midstream providers has only been enhanced by the recent doubling of its ownership interest in DCP Midstream. In today’s RBN blog, we continue our series on major NGL networks with a look at P66’s NGL-related assets, most of which run from the Rockies, West Texas and South Texas to the NGL hubs in Mont Belvieu and Old Ocean, TX. 

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.