Steam Crackers

Thursday, 04/11/2019

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.

Tuesday, 03/19/2019

There’s never a dull moment in the ethane market. Four new steam crackers and an expansion at an existing plant are slated to begin operating along the Gulf Coast in 2019, and a recently restarted Louisiana cracker will continue to ramp up to full capacity — together adding about 250 Mb/d of ethane demand by year’s end. You’d think there would be plenty of ethane out there for them. After all, U.S. NGL production has been on the rise, driven in part by new Permian gas processing plants and new NGL pipeline capacity to the coast. But fractionation constraints at the Mont Belvieu hub are likely to linger through 2019, raising questions about how much ethane will actually be produced and how much will need to be rejected into pipeline gas. Today, we consider the challenges facing the ethane market this year as demand increases and fracs run flat out to keep pace.

Sunday, 05/13/2018

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.

Monday, 04/16/2018

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.

Thursday, 03/15/2018

With U.S. NGL production hitting a record high of just over 4.0 MMb/d in the fourth quarter of 2017 and ethane production also reaching record volumes at 1.6 MMb/d, the price for ethane has remained stuck at about 25 c/gal — where it’s been for the past two years, even though prices for other NGLs are up over the same period. The combination of roaring high-ethane-content Permian and SCOOP/STACK NGL volumes, coupled with steam cracker outages and construction delays due to Hurricane Harvey, have landed us here. So where do we expect the ethane market to go now as incremental cracker and export demand ramp up in 2018 and 2019? Today, we continue a series on our updated NGL market forecast, highlighting the NGL product whose market is going through the most changes: ethane.  

Tuesday, 03/06/2018

In recent weeks, both crude oil and natural gas production have breached all-time records. So it should come as no surprise the same thing happened to NGLs — production blasted to over 4.0 MMb/d in the fourth quarter of 2017, and by our estimates will move considerably higher this year. This is a particularly big deal for the ethane market, which has spent the last eight years waiting patiently for a wave of new Gulf Coast ethane-only petrochemical plants — a.k.a. “steam crackers” — to come online in 2018. Well, here we are in 2018 and new demand from the crackers is finally kicking in. The good news for petchems is that all of the incremental NGL production means the supply of ethane available to the market is growing too, right on cue. What do these developments mean for future NGL production, demand and prices? Today, we begin a new blog series discussing our updated NGL market forecasts, starting with that NGL product whose market is going through the most changes: ethane.  

Wednesday, 10/18/2017

Available ethane in the Marcellus/Utica is expected to increase 70% by 2022 to 800 Mb/d, from about 470 Mb/d this year. That should be good news for the slew of ethane-only steam crackers coming online in that time frame, primarily along the Gulf Coast. But unfortunately, there is limited ethane pipeline takeaway capacity out of the region and today more than half of the potential ethane supply is being rejected into the natural gas pipeline stream. Without additional takeaway capacity, that rejected volume is expected to grow and few additional ethane barrels will make their way to the Gulf Coast. The question is, will transportation economics support additional pipeline development to where the demand is growing the most? Today, we will explore how the changing ethane market is likely to impact the Marcellus/Utica producing region.

Wednesday, 10/11/2017

As new ethane-only steam crackers come online and ethane exports accelerate, ethane demand is ramping up from 1.3 MMb/d today to somewhere between 2.1 and 2.3 MMb/d in 2022. The good news is that a lot of new ethane supply is becoming available — from high-Btu Permian associated gas, more gas from other oil-focused plays, and of course rapidly growing Marcellus/Utica production. Depending on what happens to oil and gas prices, somewhere between 2.5 and 3.2 MMb/d of “potential” ethane could be available by 2022 to meet that demand. So, no problem, right? Not so fast. Some of this potential ethane will be very expensive to get to market, and some won’t be able to get to market at all due to pipeline capacity constraints. How these market dynamics play out raises the possibility of wide swings in ethane prices. Today we will explore how this may play out.

Thursday, 09/07/2017

Last week Hurricane Harvey roiled the entire energy complex, with NGL markets suffering substantial disruption — curtailed natural gas liquids production from gas processing in the Eagle Ford and other basins, reduced operating rates at Mont Belvieu and other fractionation sites, shuttered LPG and ethane export docks, widespread refinery closures and a virtual shutdown of Gulf Coast petrochemical plants. While little major damage to facilities has been reported and several plants are now restarting, operating conditions continue to be extremely difficult for both the supply and demand sides of the market. Today we continue our look at how high winds and days of torrential rain affected the U.S. energy industry, this time focusing on NGLs.

Tuesday, 08/08/2017

In the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest ethane production stats — for the month of May — gas plant production of ethane exceeded 1.4 MMb/d for the first time. In the same month, ethane exports also hit a record at 191 Mb/d, and ethane demand for petrochemical production — you guessed it — hit still another all-time high, topping 1.2 MMb/d. All this is just the beginning. These numbers and the throughput of any midstream infrastructure transporting or fractionating ethane will continue to increase over the next two years as new, ethane-only crackers come online, ethane rejection dwindles and overseas exports of ethane ramp up. By 2020, U.S. ethane demand is expected to reach 2 MMb/d — up by two-thirds from where it stands now. Today we continue our series on rising ethane demand, how the new demand will be met and what it all means for ethane prices.

Tuesday, 07/18/2017

The last couple of years have been a wild ride for the U.S. ethane market, but look out ahead.  It’s going to get crazy. The onslaught of new, ethane-only crackers is upon us at the same time overseas exports are expected to ramp up. At first glance, it might appear there is enough ethane to meet all that demand, coming from molecules that today are being rejected — that is, sold as natural gas rather than liquid ethane. But the big question — will it be enough? Because not all that rejected ethane has access to pipeline capacity needed to get it to market, at least not right now. In today's blog, we begin a new series on rising ethane demand, how the new demand will be met, and what it all means for ethane prices.

Tuesday, 02/14/2017

Natural gas production in the Marcellus and Utica plays is projected to rise by 30% or more by 2022 under all of RBN’s forecast scenarios, and production of Northeast natural gas liquids is expected to increase even more quickly. Midstream companies are responding to this next phase of gas/NGL growth with plans for still more gas-processing plants, fractionators, NGL storage facilities, and NGL takeaway capacity––pipeline, rail, ship and barge. Also, Shell Chemicals continues to advance plans for an ethane-consuming steam cracker in Beaver County, PA, and another petrochemical company may soon decide to build a cracker in Ohio. Today we begin a new series on the latest push by midstreamers to keep pace with NGL growth in the epicenter of U.S. gas and NGL production.

Sunday, 01/22/2017

Every day, about 1.8 million barrels of NGLs, naphtha and other ethylene plant feedstocks are “cracked” to make both ethylene and an array of petrochemical byproducts. And every day, decisions are made for each steam cracker on which feedstock—or mix of them—would provide the plant’s owner with the highest margins. Within each petchem company, these decisions are optimized by staffs of analysts and technicians using sophisticated and complex mathematical models that consider every nuance of a specific ethylene plants’ physical capabilities. Fortunately for us mere mortals, it is possible to approximate these complex feedstock selection calculations for a “typical” flexible cracker using a relatively simple spreadsheet model. Today we continue our series on how the raw materials for ethylene plants are picked with an overview of RBN’s feedstock selection model, a review of feedstock margin trends, and an explanation of how the model also can be used to indicate future NGL and naphtha prices and to assess the prospects for various industry players.

Tuesday, 12/27/2016

The Shale Revolution has had a profound impact on U.S. NGL markets by vastly increasing production and by lowering NGL prices relative to the prices of crude oil and natural gas. That has been good news for the nation’s steam crackers, the petrochemical plants that have enjoyed low NGL feedstock prices since 2012. But NGL markets are in for some big changes as new U.S. steam crackers coming online over the next two years will be competing for supply with export markets, raising the specter of higher NGL prices—a good thing for NGL producers, but not so for petrochemical companies. How this plays out will be determined by the feedstock supply decisions petrochemical producers make as NGL prices respond to rapidly increasing demand. Today we begin a series on how steam cracker operators determine day-by-day which feedstocks are the most economic, and on the factors driving the value of ethylene feedstock prices.

Thursday, 11/10/2016

Production of natural gas liquids in the Northeast has been rising sharply for several years now, challenging the ability of NGL producers and midstream companies to deal with it all. Lately, though, drilling in “wet” gas parts of the Marcellus and Utica shale plays has slowed, mostly because prices for NGLs have sagged due to lower crude prices and the high cost of takeaway capacity, thereby reducing the incentive to drill for the wet gas responsible for NGL production growth. However, it is quite possible that total NGL production growth could continue for some period of time as more ethane is extracted from wet gas instead of being “rejected”. Meanwhile, new NGL pipeline capacity out of the Marcellus/Utica has been coming online, providing a relief valve of sorts. Today we begin a blog series on recent developments regarding Northeast NGL production, takeaway capacity and pricing.