To fire on all cylinders — especially during a period of strong high crude oil prices and rising production — the U.S. energy sector depends on midstream infrastructure networks that can efficiently handle the transportation and processing of every type of hydrocarbon that emerges from the wellhead. It’s no secret that rapid production growth in the Permian has left the red-hot West Texas play short of crude-oil pipeline capacity, and midstream companies there have also struggled to keep pace with natural gas takeaway needs too. What’s less well known is that fractionation capacity at the all-important NGL hub in Mont Belvieu, TX, is nearly maxed out, and that some Permian producers — and others — are now scrambling to find other places to send their incremental NGL barrels for fractionation into purity products. We put this issue front-and-center earlier this week in Hotel Fractionation. Today, we discuss highlights from the first of two planned Drill Down Reports on fractionators and other key assets at the nation’s largest NGL hub, and the potentially broader effects of a fractionation-capacity shortfall.
Y-grade, welcome to the Hotel Fractionation. You can check in any time you like, but you can never leave! OK, so that’s a bit of an overstatement. But there is no doubt that the U.S. NGL market has entered a period of disruption unlike anything seen in recent memory. Mont Belvieu fractionation capacity is, for all intents and purposes, maxed out. Production of purity NGL products is constrained to what can be fractionated, and with ethane demand ramping up alongside new petchem plants coming online, ethane prices are soaring. But that’s only a symptom of the problem. Production of y-grade — that mix of NGLs produced from gas processing plants — continues to increase in the Permian and around the country. Sooo … If you can’t fractionate any more y-grade, what happens to those incremental y-grade barrels being produced? How much can the industry sock away in underground storage caverns? Does it make economic sense to put large volumes of y-grade into storage if it will be years before it can be withdrawn? — i.e., “you can never leave.” And what happens if y-grade storage capacity fills up? Today, we begin a blog series to consider these issues and how they might impact not only NGL markets, but the markets for natural gas and crude oil as well.
The Utica and “wet” Marcellus plays in eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia and western Pennsylvania are producing increasing volumes of natural gas liquids and field condensates that need to be moved to market. In response, MPLX, a master limited partnership formed by Marathon Petroleum Corporation (MPC) six years ago, has been implementing a multi-part strategy to develop new or expanded pipeline takeaway capacity through the Midwest to deal specifically with the heaviest NGLs — natural gasoline and other pentanes — and with field condensates. That work is now largely done, the results have been positive, and MPLX is now undertaking the next phase of its strategy that will further expand the system’s capacity and add a new element: the ability to transport batches of two other, lighter NGLs — normal butane and isobutane — on a few of the same pipelines. Today, we discuss the next steps the company is taking to facilitate the transport of liquid hydrocarbons out of the Utica and Marcellus.
Fast-rising NGL production in the Permian, SCOOP/STACK and other plays is testing the ability of fractionators to keep up, and spurring the development of new NGL pipelines — and new fractionation plants, not just in the Mont Belvieu hub but elsewhere along Texas’s Gulf Coast. By our count, more than 1 MMb/d of new fractionation capacity is under development in the Lone Star State, and while some projects are more solid and certain than others, it’s fair to say we’re in for at least a mini-boom in fractionator construction after a multiyear lull. Today, we review the Texas fractionation projects being planned and begin assessing whether they will come online as quickly as they will be needed.
The NGL storage and fractionation hub at Mont Belvieu, TX, grabs all the attention, but more than 1 MMb/d of fractionation capacity — nearly one-third of Texas’s total — is located elsewhere in the Lone Star State. And with NGL production and demand for fractionation services soaring in the Permian, SCOOP/STACK and other nearby plays, the market will need all the fractionation capacity it can find. We’ve heard that there’s little, if any, gap between what the existing fractionators in Mont Belvieu can handle and what they’re being asked to process. That’s music to the ears of fractionation-plant owners elsewhere in Texas — assuming they aren’t already at capacity themselves, they might be able to pick up some overflow business from Mont Belvieu. Today, we continue our review of fractionators and other key NGL-related infrastructure along the Gulf Coast.
Mont Belvieu may be the epicenter of NGL storage, fractionation and distribution along the Gulf Coast, but the rest of Texas offers almost half as much fractionation capacity — about 1 MMb/d of it — and a good bit of storage and pipeline connectivity too. These are particularly important facts in the summer of 2018, when demand for fractionation services in Mont Belvieu is at or near an all-time high and increasing volumes of NGLs are headed toward the hub. So what else has the Lone Star State got on the fractionation and NGL storage front? And are these assets experiencing the same strong demand as their counterparts in Mont Belvieu? Today, we continue our review of fractionators and key NGL-related infrastructure.
For 10 years prior to 2018, the differential between propane prices at the Conway, KS, hub averaged less than a nickel per gallon below Mont Belvieu. In fact, between 2013 and 2017, the price spread was only 3.5 c/gal — excluding a winter 2014 Polar Vortex aberration — which basically reflects the cost of moving barrels 700 miles north-to-south. Not this year, though. After starting 2018 at 3 c/gal, the propane price spread took off, and has averaged 18 c/gal since April, some days moving above 26 c/gal, far above the per-bbl cost of transporting propane 700 miles south to Mont Belvieu. Is it pipeline capacity constraints? In part. But there is a much more significant factor driving this differential wider, not only in the propane market, but across all five of the NGL purity products. What is this mysterious factor? To find out, read on. But here’s your first clue: the problem is not in Kansas anymore.
For a while, the 840 Mb/d of NGL fractionation capacity that was added in Mont Belvieu, TX, between 2013 and 2016 — combined with the 1.2 MMb/d of capacity already in place before that four-year fractionator construction boom — was more than enough. But the run-up in NGL production in the Permian, SCOOP/STACK and other liquids-rich plays in 2017 and the first half of 2018 is quickly increasing the demand for fractionation services and challenging Mont Belvieu’s ability to keep up. Now, another 465 Mb/d of fractionator capacity is under development. Will they be finished soon enough? Will still more be needed? Today, we continue our review of fractionators, NGL and purity-product storage and other key infrastructure, this time with a look at ONEOK and Gulf Coast Fractionators’ assets.
The NGL storage and fractionation complex in Mont Belvieu, TX, now offers 2.1 MMb/d of fractionation capacity — the largest concentration of fractionators in the world. As impressive as that may be, though, NGL production growth in the Permian Basin, the SCOOP/STACK and other liquids-rich plays is quickly ramping up the demand for fractionation services and challenging Mont Belvieu’s ability to keep up. A number of new fractionators are being added, but will they come online soon enough? Today, we continue our review of fractionators, NGL and purity-product storage and other key infrastructure within and near the NGL Capital of the World.
The fractionation and NGL storage complex in Mont Belvieu, TX, would surely qualify as one of the Seven Wonders of the Energy World, if there were such a list. With more than 250 million barrels of NGL storage carved — by water! — out of an enormous subterranean salt dome formation, and nearly two dozen fractionation plants with a combined capacity of more than 2 MMb/d, Mont Belvieu not only serves as the largest receipt point for mixed NGL streams on the planet, it is also the key hub of distribution for the ethane, propane, normal butane and other NGL purity products that are either consumed by Gulf Coast steam crackers and refineries or exported to foreign end-users. But unlike wonders of the ancient world like the Great Pyramids at Giza, Mont Belvieu is still very much a work in progress, with new storage caverns and new fractionators now under development to try to keep up with the breakneck pace of U.S. NGL production growth. Today, we begin a company-by-company review of fractionation capacity and other key infrastructure there.
The NGL sector is firing on all cylinders. Natural gas liquids production in the Permian, the SCOOP/STACK and other key basins is up, up, up. A number of new, ethane-consuming steam crackers are coming online along the Texas and Louisiana coast, most conveniently close to the NGL storage and fractionation hub in Mont Belvieu, TX. The export market for liquefied petroleum gases — propane and normal butane — is through the roof, averaging more than 1 MMb/d in the first five months of 2018 (almost all of it being shipped out of Gulf Coast ports), and ethane exports are strong too. What’s not to like? Well, NGLs don’t do anyone much good until they are fractionated into “purity products” like ethane, propane, normal butane etc., and the rapid run-up in U.S. NGL production — combined with the reluctance of producers to commit to new fractionation capacity — has the existing fractionation plants in Mont Belvieu running flat-out to keep up. Today, we begin a review of the NGL Capital of the Western World and considers why Mont Belvieu — as big as it is — is getting bigger.
With Permian production of natural gas liquids (NGLs) on the rise and available pipeline capacity shrinking, midstream companies are in advanced stages of developing projects that — if built on their current schedules — would roughly double the 1.2-MMb/d of effective NGL takeaway capacity in place today within the next 18 months or so. Much of the planned capacity is backed by long-term commitments from Permian producers anticipating continued growth in production of crude and NGL-rich associated gas, especially in the play’s Delaware Basin. Still, the pace of NGL pipeline projects in the Permian begs the question, is all that incremental capacity needed? Today, we continue our series on the NGL takeaway challenges facing producers and processors in cowboy country.
Production of natural gas liquids in the Permian has been increasing rapidly, especially in the Delaware Basin, challenging the region’s existing NGL pipelines and other infrastructure and accelerating the development of new capacity. The Permian already had a substantial amount of NGL pipeline capacity in place before the region’s production of crude oil and associated gas took off, and more has been added since. But a number of the NGL pipes out of the Permian also move barrels from other basins, either inbound flows from the Rockies or volumes added downstream of the Permian in the Eagle Ford and Barnett shales. In addition, the vast majority of the Permian’s incremental NGL production is occurring in the Delaware, which had only a limited number of pipes and suddenly needs more. And one more thing: fast-rising ethane demand from new petrochemical plants along the Gulf Coast will reduce the share of ethane that is “rejected” into Permian natural gas. In today’s blog we discuss the NGL takeaway challenges facing producers and processors in cowboy country.
The new, larger locks along the Panama Canal have been in operation for almost two years now, enabling the passage of larger vessels between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The timing couldn’t have been better — when the expanded canal locks came online in June 2016, exports of U.S. LPG, crude oil, gasoline and diesel were about to take off, and Cheniere Energy had only recently started shipping out LNG from its Sabine Pass export terminal in Louisiana, with Asian markets in its sights. Hydrocarbon-related transits through the canal soared through the second half of 2016, in 2017 and so far in 2018. But the gains are mostly tied to LPG and LNG — even the expanded canal isn’t big enough for the Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) favored for Gulf Coast-to-Asia crude shipments, or for fully laden Suezmax-class vessels. And there already are indications that the canal’s capacity may not be sufficient to meet future LNG needs. Today, we consider the expanded canal’s current and future role in facilitating U.S. hydrocarbon exports.
After years in the doldrums, ethane prices are increasing, not so much in absolute terms, but where it counts — relative to the price of natural gas. That means less ethane will be rejected — sold as natural gas — and more will be recovered as liquid ethane and sold as a petrochemical plant feedstock. As still more new ethane-only petrochemical plants come online over the next couple of years, ethane demand will increase, boosting ethane prices and resulting in still less ethane rejection. Does that mean ethane rejection will be a thing of the past? No, not even close. U.S. natural gas production, especially gas with a high ethane content, is growing so fast that ethane supply will continue to outstrip demand for the foreseeable future, with important consequences for ethane prices. Today, we continue our review of NGL market developments.