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.
Demand for ethane from U.S. steam crackers is rising as recently completed ethane-only crackers ramp up to full production and additional crackers are finished. To keep pace with demand growth, a portion of the ethane now being “rejected” into the natural gas stream and sold for its Btu value will instead need to be left in the mixed-NGLs stream and fractionated into purity-product ethane. This raises two questions. First, in which shale plays will this shift from ethane rejection to ethane production occur? And second, how much will ethane prices need to increase to encourage the shift and make the required incremental volumes of ethane available? Today, we continue a series on ethane-market developments with a look at where the next tranche of ethane supply will come from and how high ethane prices might need to rise.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The biggest driver of generally rising LPG exports is the widening gap between how much LPG the U.S. consumes and how much it produces — there’s simply too much of the stuff, and LPG-hungry European and Asian markets beckon. But month-to-month export volumes are often erratic, affected by a wide range of variables. Winter weather in Wisconsin. Steam cracker economics in Germany. Propane dehydrogenation (PDH) plant outages in China. Not to mention lingering fog or a tank-farm fire along the Houston Ship Channel, or the startup of a new NGL pipeline to the Marcus Hook terminal near Philly. Add to all this the export-volume spikes that may come later this year and in 2020 when new dock capacity comes online along the Gulf Coast. Today, we take a look at what drives the monthly ups and downs in exports.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.