Steam Crackers

Tuesday, 06/04/2019

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.

Sunday, 04/28/2019

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.

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.