natural gas liquids

A build-out of NGL fractionators, steam crackers and export terminals for ethane, LPG and ethylene is actively in progress along the Gulf. This growth is spurring the development of new storage capacity — not just at the Mont Belvieu NGL hub, but in other, nearby areas with access to fracs, crackers and export docks. Much of this new storage capacity is being developed by companies that fractionate mixed NGLs and sell so-called “purity products” to meet their internal needs. However, at least one project is being built by what you might call an “independent,” whose aim is to connect to multiple pipelines and provide storage services to customers, without taking title to products alongside their customers. Today, we continue our series on existing and planned NGL storage facilities along the Gulf Coast with a look at Caliche Development Partners’ new storage complex in Beaumont, TX.

The ethane market isn’t for the faint at heart — it’s got lots of ups and downs, and it’s impacted by an unusually wide range of variables. A year ago this month, a combination of fractionation constraints in Mont Belvieu and rising demand from new ethane-only steam crackers sent ethane prices north of 60 cents/gallon. For most of the time since then, though, ethane prices were in something close to freefall, bottoming out at only 10 cents in late July before rebounding in recent weeks to 20 cents or so. During the big, months-long price decline, ethane traders and cracker operators did what anyone does when they can buy something they’ll need in the future for next to nothing — they stocked up. Today, we examine recent trends in ethane supply, demand, prices and storage levels, and take a look ahead.

The “wet,” liquids-rich parts of the Marcellus/Utica region enable producers there to benefit from the sale of both natural gas and NGLs. The catch is that, unlike major production areas in other parts of the U.S., the Northeast has no pipelines to transport unfractionated, mixed NGLs — also known as y-grade — long distances to fractionation centers in Mont Belvieu, TX, or Conway, KS. As a result, midstream companies serving the region have developed a number of interconnected gas processing, NGL pipeline and fractionation networks within the wet Marcellus/Utica to efficiently and reliably deal with the increasing flows of NGLs coming their way. No one has done this on a larger or more impressive scale than MPLX, Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s midstream-focused master limited partnership. Today, we continue our series on recently completed and planned gas processing and fractionation projects in the Northeast with a look at MPLX, the regional leader in this space.

Energy markets are constantly changing, but pipelines can take years to complete, and once they’re in the ground, that’s where they stay. Therefore, it’s critical for midstream companies to build as much flexibility as possible into their plans for new pipelines and other infrastructure, because you never know what the markets for crude oil, natural gas, NGLs and refined products might have in store. Energy Transfer apparently has that flexibility in mind as it’s been building out its Mariner East pipeline system across Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex (MHIC) near Philadelphia. Today, we consider recent developments regarding these key midstream assets in the Northeast and their still-evolving uses.

In May 2019, the first-ever propane unit train from the Bakken to Mexico reached its destination, and since then, three more of these 100-car, single-commodity “bulk” trains have made the same trip. Facilitating these shipments by Twin Eagle Liquids Marketing is Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s (MPC) unit train-loading terminal in Fryburg, ND, which was initially set up to load crude oil but was recently expanded to handle propane too. And soon, the terminal in Torreón, Mexico, that has been receiving these unit trains will have a new loop track too, enabling producers and marketers to take full advantage of the bulk transport option. Today, we look at the economics and challenges of this relatively new propane export route.

Natural gas production in the U.S. Northeast has been increasing steadily through the 2010s and now averages about 32 Bcf/d — 12% higher than last August and nearly double where it stood five years ago — despite the lowest regional spot gas prices since early 2016. This run-up in production volumes wouldn’t have been possible without the new gas-processing and fractionation capacity that MPLX and other midstream companies have been bringing online at a steady pace in the “wet” or NGLs-rich parts of the Marcellus and Utica shales. Today, we begin a short blog series on recently completed and planned gas-processing and fractionation projects in the nation’s largest gas-producing region, and the gas production growth they will help enable.

In May 2019, Twin Eagle Liquids Marketing shipped a 100-car train filled with propane from North Dakota to Mexico, marking the first-ever single-commodity train — i.e. “unit train” — between the Bakken and the U.S.’s southern neighbor. As it turns out, it was also the first of what appears to be a regularly scheduled run to Mexico. Since May, three more unit trains have made the journey south from the Bakken’s first unit train terminal for propane. Rail shipments of propane to Mexico as part of mixed-goods trains aren’t new, but figuring out how to economically ship large quantities of propane via unit trains has long evaded NGL marketers and producers — that is, until now. What are the economics and other factors that finally made it possible, and what are the prospects and challenges ahead for unit-train exports to Mexico? Today, we look at how the first all-propane train to Mexico came to pass and what the outlook might be for these shipments to continue.

For a few days in late July, the price differential between propane stored at Enterprise Products Partners’ salt caverns in Mont Belvieu, TX, and propane stored at facilities owned by others a few hundred yards away quickly widened to as much as 10 cents/gallon. That’s by far the biggest spread of its type we can recall, and while we can’t say for certain what caused the “Enterprise-vs.-others” propane differential to blow out, there’s a likely — and familiar — culprit: NGL infrastructure constraints. Something else this unusual pricing event confirmed is that, no matter where the NGL storage, fractionation or pipeline constraint may occur, it almost always has an outsized effect on the much smaller NGL storage and fractionation hub in Conway, KS. What’s with that? Today, we look at the recent, rapid slide in propane prices at Enterprise’s Mont Belvieu storage facility and discuss what it tells us.

Rising U.S. production of NGLs and so-called “purity products” like ethane and propane, as well as growth in steam cracker capacity and NGL and ethylene exports, are giving added importance to NGL and ethylene storage capacity in underground salt caverns along the Gulf Coast. Mont Belvieu, TX, has long been the epicenter of both fractionation and salt-cavern NGL storage — and it will remain so — but there are other areas along the Texas coast with frac capacity and NGL storage, as well as steam crackers and export docks. The questions now are, is there enough in the right locations, and can what’s stored there be received and quickly sent out? Today, we begin a look at existing and planned NGL storage facilities along the Texas coast that are not in Mont Belvieu.

When it comes to U.S. NGL exports, propane and ethane grab most of the attention. Each accounts for a big share of the typical NGL barrel, and ethane exports are a frequent topic of conversation because of the potential for growth — especially if the U.S. and China find a way to end their trade war. But three other so-called NGL “purity products” — normal butane, isobutane and natural gasoline — are being exported in increasing volumes too, providing important supplemental revenue to NGL producers and marketers. What’s their story? Today, we look at the export volumes and destinations of three often overlooked purity products.

Offer any energy commodity at a low-enough price and buyers will surface, as long as there’s a way to get that liquid or gas from where it’s being sold to where it’s being used or put on a boat for export. That’s been the recent experience of the butane market in Western Canada, where a perfect storm of events last fall caused butane prices in Edmonton, AB, to freefall to near zero. But things have turned around, at least for now. Today, we take a look at the dramatic recovery of the Edmonton butane market and what might lie ahead.

The margin for producing ethylene by steam-cracking ethane has been less than a dime per pound since mid-March 2018, and less than a nickel for nearly nine of the past 15-and-a-half months. In fact, for two weeks last September, the ethylene-from-ethane margin fell below zero. And yet, a joint venture of two of the world’s savviest companies — energy giant ExxonMobil and petchem behemoth Saudi Basic Industries Corp., or SABIC — recently committed to building what will be the world’s largest ethane steam cracker: a 4-billion-pounds/year facility to be constructed near Corpus Christi by 2022. Is this a case of blind optimism? No, not when you factor in the cracker’s location, the JV’s concurrent plan to construct two polyethylene plants and a monoethylene glycol plant right next door, and the co-developers’ global market reach. Today, we discuss the thinking behind ExxonMobil and SABIC’s big investment in Texas’s San Patricio County.

Permian midstream development activity has been happening at a rapid pace over the past few years, and we’ve featured many of those projects in the RBN blogosphere. One of the most aggressive players has been Salt Creek Midstream, which is in the midst of a big Permian buildout focusing on natural gas, crude oil, natural gas liquids and even produced water. Salt Creek isn’t only developing local midstream infrastructure; it’s also at work on long-haul solutions that will enable Permian producers to access markets along the Texas Gulf Coast — a wellhead-to-water strategy, you might call it. Helping Permian producers meet their needs to take away all three hydrocarbons plus produced water with integrated transport and pricing options is the key to Salt Creek’s effort. Today, we dive into the details of the company’s expansive Permian infrastructure development plan.

Keyera Corp. and SemCAMS Midstream, two major midstream players in Western Canada, in mid-May announced they are proceeding with the construction of their joint-venture project — a new NGL and condensate pipeline system out of the liquids-rich Montney and Duvernay plays of Alberta. The planned Key Access Pipeline System would provide the first direct competition for the transportation of NGLs and condensate out of these producing regions, currently dominated by Pembina Pipeline Co. Any and all transportation options for the movement of condensate and other NGLs out of the Montney and surrounding plays will likely be welcomed by Western Canadian natural gas producers, who are looking to capitalize on oil-sands producers’ growing demand for homegrown sources of condensate for use as diluent in bitumen transportation. Today, we provide key details about the project and how it fits into the region’s existing condensate/NGLs market.

U.S. ethane exports have risen steadily over the past five years, from next to nothing in early 2014 to an average of 255 Mb/d in 2018 and 269 Mb/d in the first three months of this year. But unlike its heavier NGL siblings propane and butane, which are in demand globally as fuels and feedstocks, ethane’s only established use is in steam crackers specifically equipped to process it, so there are only a few countries where exported ethane is likely to end up. Also, the waterborne transport of ethane is generally limited to specially designed ethane carriers, and there aren’t many of those around because of ethane’s restricted market. All this makes for an export commodity that stands apart. Today, we review the evolution of U.S. ethane exports and the challenges to export growth posed by the U.S./China trade war.