It’s been nine years since Formosa Petrochemical filed its first permit applications for a proposed $9.4 billion petrochemical complex in Louisiana and, while the greenfield project has faced legal setbacks, it recently posted an important win and may — emphasis on may — eventually make it across the finish line. The Sunshine Project would be massive and consequential, with two steam crackers each capable of consuming 75 Mb/d of ethane, a big propane dehydrogenation (PDH) unit and a number of other petchem production facilities that together would employ more than 1,200. In today’s RBN blog, we’ll look at the project and its long and winding road toward potential construction and startup. 

Between 2015 and 2018 five new U.S. propane dehydrogenation (PDH) plants are expected online – producing over 9 billion pounds a year of propylene. Williams are building another new PDH plant in western Canada. Five of these plants will be located on the Texas Gulf Coast – the center of the world’s chemical industry. Once they are up and running they should have a profound impact on U.S. and international markets for propane and propylene. Today we describe plans to develop these new plants.

On September 19, 2014, the operating margin for a representative Gulf Coast steam cracker running ethane hit a record high – an astonishing 70.4 cents per pound.  Steam cracker margins depend not only on the spread between feedstock costs and the market price of ethylene but also on the varying amounts of propylene, butadiene and other byproducts that result from using different feedstocks. Understanding steam cracker profitability in the context of recent market developments is critically important, and it is the subject of RBN’s latest Drill-Down Report. In today’s blog we provide highlights of the report, which examines what is behind the ongoing shift from heavier to lighter NGL feedstocks, unveils RBN’s downloadable Steam Cracker Feedstock Selection Model, and discusses how new U.S. cracker capacity, NGL exports and other factors will impact these markets.

Starting at the end of 2015 six new North American propane dehydrogenation (PDH) plants are expected to come online. These new plants will have the capacity to convert up to 170 Mb/d of propane into much more valuable propylene. If all the plants are built, these new supplies of propylene should more than replace declining output from olefin crackers and refineries. These on-purpose PDH plants should also make propylene supply more directly responsive to feedstock prices. Today we describe how PDH plants are likely to impact the propane market.

Emission regulations require that companies planning new olefin crackers in EPA designated nonattainment areas like Houston must buy emission credits prior to construction. The market for credits in Houston for one criteria pollutant – volatile organic compounds (VOCs) skyrocketed from $4.5K/ton in 2011 to $300K/ton this month. The scarcity of emission credits and their rising price threaten to constrain or delay new petrochemical plant builds and will continue to hamper plant development and expansions in the Gulf Coast region. Today we describe the challenge new projects face.

Cheap feedstocks resulting from dramatic increases in US shale production of natural gas and natural gas liquids (NGLs) have led petrochemical companies to plan at least 7 new processing plants - known as olefin crackers - all but one on the Gulf Coast. These plants are expensive (think $billions) and take years to permit and build. They also produce significant quantities of emissions that are restricted by the Clean Air Act (CAA) – some of which trade in a market that has been skyrocketing for the past few months – threatening to delay or constrain the Gulf Coast cracker building spree before it gets started. Today we describe the regulations.

Last week the price of ethylene dropped from the low 50s per pound down to the low 40s. In a big flip-flop, propane has been the preferred feedstock for petrochemical plants on the Gulf Coast for a couple of weeks now (it had been ethane for the most part of the last 3+ years).  And the petchem market hit ethane where it hurts, whacking the price down to 29.875 cnts/gal on Friday according to OPIS.  A month ago that price was 50 cnts/gal. In October of last year the price was almost $1.00 (see graph below).  This is good news for petchems, right?  Well, it all depends on the margin that the petchem realizes on the feedstocks that are run.  So to figure that out, let’s get to Part III of our series on the economics of petrochemical feedstocks.