When it comes to U.S. NGL exports, propane and ethane grab most of the attention. Each accounts for a big share of the typical NGL barrel, and ethane exports are a frequent topic of conversation because of the potential for growth — especially if the U.S. and China find a way to end their trade war. But three other so-called NGL “purity products” — normal butane, isobutane and natural gasoline — are being exported in increasing volumes too, providing important supplemental revenue to NGL producers and marketers. What’s their story? Today, we look at the export volumes and destinations of three often overlooked purity products.
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.
It’s impossible to know for certain what will happen next in the international markets for propane, butane and ethane — there are too many variables and vagaries. What is very doable, though, is to gain a better understanding of the broader market forces at play. For example, the U.S. now has a few years under its belt as a major propane exporter, so it’s feasible to assess trends in where that propane is going — or no longer going — and to examine how propane exports to various parts of the world are impacted by everything from a high-stakes trade war to governmental efforts to encourage the use of cleaner cooking fuel. Today, we continue our deep-dive into propane, butane and ethane exports with a look at where propane exports from the U.S. East, West and Gulf coasts are heading, and why.
As Western Canadian natural gas production has been recovering off lows from a few years ago and pushing higher, one of the by-products of this recovery has been steadily rising production of natural gasoline, an NGL “purity product’ also known as plant condensate. Condensate production has been growing so much that Pembina Pipeline Corp. — a leading transporter of natural gasoline in the region — has been undertaking another round of expansions to its Peace Pipeline system to move more of the product to the Alberta oil sands. There, condensate is used as a diluent to allow the transportation of viscous bitumen to far-away markets via pipelines or rail. Today, we take a closer look at Pembina’s effort to expand the Peace Pipeline.
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.
U.S. propane is fanning out across the planet, with export volumes now triple those of any other country. The global LPG market today is dominated by cargoes shipped from U.S. ports. Buyers from Mexico to South Korea can’t make a move without considering conditions on the Houston Ship Channel or pipeline constraints in Pennsylvania. But an interconnected market is a two-way street. U.S. propane prices are now influenced more by the weather in Europe and Asia than by the weather in Wisconsin or New Hampshire. And it’s not only propane. All NGLs are experiencing growth in U.S. export volumes, with huge implications for infrastructure, capacity constraints and, of course, prices. Today, we preview the deep dive into these issues on the agenda at RBN’s upcoming xPortCon conference.
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.
Rising natural gas liquids production in the Niobrara is increasingly straining existing pipeline capacity out of the region and has spurred midstreamers to propose various combinations of new pipelines, expansions to existing pipelines and pipeline conversions in order to ease constraints. One of the latest entrants is a joint venture of Williams and Targa Resources that would expand Rockies producers’ ability to move mixed NGLs to the Mont Belvieu, TX, hub for fractionation and marketing/export. Williams plans to build a 188-mile pipeline — Bluestem — that would extend from its Rockies-to-Conway, KS, Overland Pass Pipeline to Kingfisher County, OK. For its part, Targa will build a 110-mile extension of its new Grand Prix NGL pipeline from southern Oklahoma north into Kingfisher to connect with Bluestem. As part of the deal, Williams has also contracted substantial volumes on Grand Prix as well as at Targa’s fractionation facility at Mont Belvieu. Today, we discuss Williams and Targa’s plan.
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.
Fractionators at the Mont Belvieu hub operated at or near full capacity through the second half of 2018 as they struggled to deal with a deluge of mixed NGLs from the Permian and other key production areas. This situation — barely enough capacity to keep pace with rising demand for fractionation services — is likely to continue through 2019, even as a number of new fractionators come online. But NGL producers and the midstream sector are on the case: a slew of additional frac capacity has been announced since last fall, all of it slated to begin operation in 2020 or early 2021, and all of it backed by long-term contracts. Today, we discuss ongoing efforts to make the most of existing frac trains and to add new capacity pronto.
The U.S. midstream sector has been on a development binge the past few years, mostly in an effort to catch up — and then keep up — with production growth in the Shale Era’s two premier plays: the Marcellus/Utica in the Northeast and the Permian Basin in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. What’s sometimes overlooked, however, is that significant numbers of new pipelines, processing plants and other key assets are being built in smaller, lower-profile production areas. The Niobrara’s Denver-Julesburg and Powder River basins are cases in point. Exploration and production activity in the D-J in particular has been soaring, and the resulting gains in crude oil, natural gas and NGL output has been stressing the region’s hydrocarbon-related infrastructure, thus spurring the development of new processing plants and pipelines. Also, interest in the Powder has been renewed — production there has been rebounding after crude-production ups and downs and gas-production declines through the 2010s. Today, we discuss highlights from RBN’s new Drill Down Report on the Niobrara production region.
Energy Transfer’s Mariner East pipeline system was supposed to help resolve a growing problem for producers in the “wet” Marcellus and Utica plays — namely, the need to transport increasing volumes of LPG out of the Northeast, especially during the warmer months, when in-region demand for LPG is low. The pipeline system also was meant to spur LPG and ethane exports out of Energy Transfer’s Marcus Hook marine terminal near Philadelphia. So how are things going? Well, the now five-year-old, 70-Mb/d Mariner East 1 pipeline, designed to transport ethane and propane, has been offline ever since a sinkhole exposed a part of the pipe late last month. The 275-Mb/d Mariner East 2 pipe is finally in operation and enabling a lot more LPG to move to Marcus Hook, but for now it can only run at about 60% of its capacity. And last Friday, a key Pennsylvania regulator suspended its review of outstanding water permit applications for the remaining piece of ME-2 and the parallel 250-Mb/d ME-2 Expansion project, and threw into doubt how long it might take to finish the Mariner East system and ramp it up to full capacity. Today, we begin a series on recent Mariner East developments and explain how, despite the mixed bag of Mariner East news in recent weeks, the situation is not as bad as it may seem.
U.S. crude oil, NGL and gas markets have entered a new era. Exports now dominate the supply/demand equilibrium. These markets simply would not clear at today’s production levels, much less at the flow rates coming over the next few years, if not for access to global markets. This year, the U.S. may export 20-25% of domestic crude production, 15% of natural gas and 40% of NGLs from gas processing, and those percentages will continue to ramp up. What will this massive shift in energy flows mean for U.S. markets, and for that matter, for the rest of the world? The best way to answer that question is to get the major players together under one roof and figure it out. That’s the plan for Energy xPortCon 2019. Warning!: Today’s blog is a blatant advertorial for our upcoming conference.
Well, it finally happened. After several years of assessing the possible development of a large, integrated propane dehydrogenation (PDH) plant and polypropylene (PP) upgrader unit, a joint venture of Canada’s Pembina Pipeline and Kuwait’s Petrochemical Industries Co. (PIC) earlier this week announced a final investment decision (FID) for the multibillion-dollar project in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland. The new PDH/PP complex won’t come online until 2023, but when it does, it will provide yet another new outlet for Western Canadian propane, which has been selling at a significant discount in recent years. Today, we discuss Pembina and PIC’s long-awaited PDH/PP project, Inter Pipeline’s development of a similar project nearby, Western Canadian propane export plans — and what they all mean for propane prices.