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.
For the past few years, demand for U.S.-sourced ethane has been on the rise as petrochemical companies in the U.S. and abroad developed new, ethane-only steam crackers and retrofitted existing crackers to allow more ethane to be used as feedstock. U.S. NGL production was increasing too, of course, alongside growth in crude oil-focused plays like the Permian and “wet” gas plays like the Marcellus/Utica. But recently, drilling-and-completion activity has slowed to a crawl and NGL production has been leveling off, which means that less of the ethane that comes out of the ground with oil and gas will be “rejected” into natural gas and more will be separated out at fractionation plants. Today, we conclude a series on ethane exports with a look at U.S. NGL production, ethane supply and demand, ethane exports, and ethane prices.
The U.S. is by far the world’s largest ethane producer, and exports one-seventh of what it produces, with most of the exported volumes tied to long-term contracts to supply ethane-consuming steam crackers. Canada is the #1 importer of U.S. ethane, receiving its volumes via three pipelines. As for U.S. exports by ship, India is on top, followed by the UK and Norway. But watch out! China, which started importing U.S. ethane a year or so ago, is poised to buy a heck of lot more, with most of the incremental volumes to be shipped out of a new ethane export terminal about to come online in Nederland, TX. Today, we continue our series with a look at the Orbit Ethane Export Terminal, which is being jointly developed by Energy Transfer and Satellite Petrochemical, the U.S. subsidiary of a Chinese petrochemical company.
Taken together, the ethane-related infrastructure projects developed in the U.S. over the past several years serve as a reliable feedstock-delivery network for a number of steam crackers in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. NGL pipelines transport y-grade to fractionation hubs, fractionators split the mixed NGLs into ethane and other “purity” products, ethane pipelines move the feedstock to export terminals fitted with the special storage and loading facilities that ethane requires, and a class of cryogenic ships — Very Large Ethane Carriers, or VLECs — sails ethane to mostly long-term customers in distant lands. The end results of all this development are virtual ethane pipelines between, say, the Marcellus/Utica and Scotland, or the Permian and India. Today, we continue our series on ethane exports with a look at the two existing export terminals, the ethane volumes they have been handling, and where all that ethane has been headed.
In the past three years, two major commitments were made to construct propane dehydrogenation and polypropylene plants in Alberta to take advantage of the rising bounty and generally low cost of propane supplies in Western Canada. Two Calgary-based midstream companies, Inter Pipeline Ltd. and Pembina Pipeline, each started developing PDH-PP plants in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland area northeast of Edmonton. But then came COVID-19, which set back the timeline for one of the projects and put the other on ice. All this comes as Western Canada’s propane market is in greater flux than usual, and facing a tightening supply/demand balance as exports to Asia ramp up. Today, we provide a status check on the development of these two plants, and what the increase in demand might portend for propane balances in the next few years.
The run-up in U.S. production of natural gas liquids over the past 10 years spurred the development of a whole lot of infrastructure. More pipelines to transport mixed NGLs from production areas to NGL storage and fractionation hubs, especially Mont Belvieu, TX. More fractionators to split y-grade into ethane, propane, and other “purity” products. And, specifically for ethane — the lightest, quirkiest, and most plentiful NGL — a number of ethane-only steam crackers were built along the Gulf Coast to take advantage of the new supply abundance, as were ethane-only pipelines, export terminals, and a whole new class of cryogenic ships — Very Large Ethane Carriers, or VLECs — to move the product to markets in Europe and Asia. Today, we begin a new series on the unique nature of overseas ethane exports, including why most incremental export volumes are tied to long-term supply deals with a handful of global ethylene plants designed — or reconfigured — to “crack” ethane.
The South Texas NGL market has always been a world of its own, a self-contained liquids ecosystem running from Brownsville to Markham, a distant 200 miles from the NGL epicenter at Mont Belvieu. In recent years, however, the South Texas market has been undergoing radical change, first with the emergence of the Eagle Ford basin, then with the onslaught of Permian production and, most recently, with the aptly named EPIC NGL Pipeline and new fractionation capacity in greater Corpus Christi. More supply and demand are on the way, with new pipes, exports, and the largest ethane-only petrochemical plant in the world under construction. And with these developments, a strategy by several large, well-financed players has emerged – to develop an NGL storage and fractionation hub competitive with Month Belvieu. Today, we begin a series to examine the South Texas NGL market and how changes there will impact flows, utilization, and pricing across North America and beyond.
Understanding whether propane production is up or down over the past few months is a bit more difficult than you might think, depending on which set of EIA numbers you choose to look at. The U.S. Energy Information Administration provides monthly numbers on the last day of the month lagged by about two months, and weekly numbers on Wednesdays, lagged by only five days. Both time series are closely watched by the propane market to assess the availability of supply for retail customers, petrochemical feedstock demand, and exports. Usually, these two sets of numbers move in tandem. But not always. The monthly numbers show production down by about 70 Mb/d from April to June, which is what you would expect given what was happening with crude and gas production at that point in time. Yet EIA weekly production numbers showed production increasing by about 90 Mb/d for the same period. So which way is propane production really trending? If you want to understand what’s going on, and you don’t mind delving into some deeply wonky NGL analytics, hang on for today’s blog.
About two-thirds of all of the propane consumed in the U.S. is used as fuel — for indoor and outdoor cooking, home heating, water heaters, drying crops, and running forklifts and fleet vehicles. The other one-third is used as a feedstock for producing ethylene and other petchems. About 95% of the propane supply to meet this demand is produced and processed right here in the U.S. of A., making propane the most American fuel we’ve got. But when firing up the grill out back and watching that first propane molecule flash to life, most backyard chefs don’t think much about the long and winding road their propane has traveled. It’s actually a fascinating tale of supply-chain logistics that involves high pressures, bitter cold, wild rides up and down tall towers, storage deep underground, and, of course, trains, trucks, and tanks. We think it’s a tale that needs to be told, and that’s what we’ve been doing in this update of another Greatest Hit blog.
Yet again, the Texas-Louisiana coast is bracing for a hurricane that has the potential to be really bad, not just for the people and homes in the storm’s path, but for the region’s all-important energy sector. Hurricane Laura will be crossing a swath of the Gulf of Mexico dotted with oil and gas production platforms, and is headed for an area chockablock with tank farms, refineries, and steam crackers, as well as export terminals of every stripe: crude oil, refined products, ethane, LPG, and LNG. There’s a good chance there’ll be a lot of disruption to many energy-related activities for at least the balance of this week — and maybe longer — but one of the biggest hits could come to Mont Belvieu, TX, the center of NGL storage and fractionation. Today, we discuss how the storm might affect not only storage at the U.S.’s largest NGL hub, but gas-processing activity hundreds of miles inland.
When you talk about energy molecules, propane takes the prize for the most versatile. In addition to its well-known uses for BBQ grills, indoor cooking, and home heating, propane is used for drying crops, as a feedstock for petrochemicals, as an engine fuel for forklifts and fleet vehicles, and in recent years, as an export product in its own right. Propane moves to market on pipelines, railcars, ships, barges, trucks — just about any form of transportation you can imagine. But exactly how any particular molecule of propane makes the journey from the instant it comes out of a well to all those market destinations can be a mystery to all but a small cadre of propane market insiders. In another in our series of updates to RBN’s greatest hit blogs, we are delving into this mystery, one step at a time, today focusing on transportation from the producing basin to storage and fractionation at the Mont Belvieu hub, and the transformation of the generic commodity to a marketable fuel.
When firing up the backyard propane grill and watching that first propane molecule flash to life, most people don’t think much about what it took to get that fuel to the cylinder they picked up at the store. But that long and winding road from the production well to the tank beneath your grill is actually a fascinating tale of supply-chain logistics involving producers, midstreamers, and propane retailers. In today’s blog, we will take that interesting and sometimes mysterious trip with a molecule of propane. We will travel over 1,000 miles, moving in and out of various facilities, purifying our product and incurring various costs each step of the way. So strap on your seat belt for a selection from our greatest blog hits, in which we track a typical propane molecule’s journey from beginning to end.
Over the past two years, MPLX has been ramping up its midstream development activity in the Lone Star State, or more specifically in the “Permian-to-Gulf” market, where it’s been building or buying into gathering systems, gas processing plants, and crude and natural gas takeaway pipelines, among other things. Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s midstream-focused master limited partnership also has been in hot pursuit of a number of possible NGL-related projects, including MPLX’s proposed Belvieu Alternative NGL (BANGL) Pipeline and three big fractionation plants in the Sweeny, TX, area, and a planned LPG export terminal in Texas City, TX. As a group, these projects would require millions of barrels of underground salt-cavern storage capacity for y-grade and NGL purity products along the Texas coast, as well as multiple pipeline connections to move the stuff to where it needs to be. Today, we continue our series on Gulf Coast NGL storage with a look at the NGL side of the MLP’s Permian-to-Gulf strategy.
New fractionation plants, steam crackers and export facilities are being built along the Gulf Coast, all spurred by rising U.S. production of natural gas liquids. This incremental NGL output and these new projects are putting serious pressure on existing NGL pipeline and storage infrastructure, and prodding the development of new salt-cavern storage capacity for mixed NGLs, NGL purity products, and ethylene and other olefins. Also, new, expanded and repurposed pipelines to enhance NGL-related flows throughout the region are in the works. Today, we continue our series on NGL storage facilities along the Gulf Coast with a look at Easton Energy Services’ plans for more underground storage capacity in Markham, TX, and new NGL and olefin pipelines.
During the 2010s, the Marcellus/Utica region has experienced an astonishing 16-fold increase in natural gas production, from 2 Bcf/d in early 2010 to more than 32 Bcf/d today. The region’s rapid transformation from minor energy player to superstar came with a lot of infrastructure-related growing pains, many of them tied to the urgent need for more gas pipeline takeaway capacity. Takeaway constraints have largely been addressed — at least for now — but producers’ continuing efforts to develop “wet,” liquids-rich parts of the Marcellus/Utica have resulted in an ongoing requirement for more gas processing and fractionation capacity. Put simply, as wet-gas production ramps up, so must the region’s ability to process that gas and its associated natural gas liquids. Today, we continue a series on existing and planned gas processing and fractionation projects in the Northeast with a look at the growing role played by Williams and its new Canadian partner.