Until just a few years ago, the rise and fall of U.S. propane inventories each year was driven in large part by winter weather: the colder the temperatures in the major propane-consuming areas, the bigger the draw on stocks. Things have gotten much more complicated lately, though, thanks to a combination of rapid NGL production growth, a generally booming propane export market, and the vagaries of petchem margins. Now, to get a handle on propane stocks, you not only need to be able to forecast the weather, you also need to monitor international propane arbs and steam cracker economics — oh, and crude prices too, because they have a significant effect on NGL output and propane supply. Today, we discuss the many factors that impact propane inventories and prices in this sometimes chaotic market.
Could it get any worse? Possibly, but the last time we saw petchem margins this bad was in the depths of the 2008-09 economic meltdown, and back then the atrocious margin levels resulted in drastic plant curtailments and in some cases permanent shutdowns. But this time around the petchem industry is in the process of bringing on even more capacity! Is the current situation a fluke, or a harbinger of things to come? In today’s blog we examine recent trends in steam cracker margins, by far the largest demand sector for natural gas liquids (NGLs) and consider what these developments may mean for NGL markets in general, and ethane in particular.