Natural Gas Liquids

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.

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.