Here in Texas, the snow is melting, the power is back on, and some of us even have drinkable water. We’ll be dealing with the aftermath of the 2021 Deep Freeze for months, and talking about the insane natural gas and power prices for as long as gas and power markets exist. One thing you have not heard much about during these crazy few days is propane. And given what we’ve been through, no news is good news. Sure, it was impossible to exchange a tank at the local Quickie Mart, and there were sporadic reports of delayed propane deliveries and local shortfalls. But even up in the coldest Midwest states, there were no market meltdowns, no skyrocketing prices. Instead, propane has been the go-to fuel to keep folks warm, to get energy production moving again by defrosting wellheads and pipeline valves, and even to get restaurants back on their feet. It’s always dangerous to declare a winter victory with a few weeks left to go in the season, but today we’ll take that risk.
A blast of Arctic air plunges the Midwest and Northeast into deep freeze. Already-low propane inventories result in supply shortages in local markets. Propane transport trucks move product hundreds of miles from storage hubs to replenish regional terminals as markets scramble to meet surging propane demand. Are we talking about the nightmarish polar vortex winter of 2013-14, when regional propane inventories were sucked down dangerously low and Conway, KS, propane prices skyrocketed to almost $5.00/gal? No. We are talking about now. This is a description of what is happening today in U.S. propane country –– that belt of northern states that depend heavily on propane for heating. But this is not 2013-14. Things have changed. So in today’s blog we’ll explore how the latest polar vortex could be quite different than that weather-driven crisis seven years ago.
For many midstream companies, the experience of the past 12 months has been akin to falling down a flight of stairs. The fortunate sit at the bottom — stunned a bit, with arms and legs akimbo — and gradually determine that they’re generally alright, and that they’ll be more careful next time. The less lucky? They’re banged up and bloodied, and maybe headed to the ER and, after that, weeks of physical therapy. But were the “fortunate” really just lucky? Or were they in better shape, more athletic, more prepared for any eventuality? And what about companies when they’re hit hard with a sudden, negative shift in market conditions, out of the blue? Today, we discuss highlights from the second part of East Daley Capital’s 2021 edition of Dirty Little Secrets report, which examines the assets and outlooks of 26 leading midstream companies. We’ll focus on two representative midstreamers: Energy Transfer and EnLink Midstream.
It’s a well-known fact in the energy and petchem industries that ethane is either “rejected” into natural gas or used as a feedstock for steam crackers. But piping ethane to NGL hubs, crackers, or export docks only makes sense if it’s economically viable or if there’s no other alternative, and ethane rejection has its limits — ethane has a 70% higher Btu value than methane, and too much rejection can make pipeline gas “too hot” for downstream consumers. Well, there’s another way to make economic use of ethane: burn it — typically in a blend with natural gas — to generate electric power. Burning ethane for power is super-rare though, and only happens in places where the lightest of all NGLs is so abundant that folks don’t know what to do with it. The Marcellus/Utica region in Appalachia for one, and now — just maybe — the Bakken Shale in western North Dakota. Today, we discuss plans for what would be only the second major U.S. power plant to be fueled by a blend of natural gas and ethane.
Things move fast in today’s propane market. Two weeks ago, Mont Belvieu propane was going for almost 95 cents/gal, up 86% from the mid-November price of only 51 c/gal. Midcontinent propane assessed in Conway, KS, spiked even higher, doubling over the same time frame to more than a dollar per gallon. But last week some air came out of the balloon, with Mont Belvieu and Conway prices pulling back to the low 80s. That didn’t last long either. This week, Mont Belvieu is back up to the high 80s c/gal. What gives? Is the market simply being bounced around by vacillating weather forecasts? Or is there more to it than that? Could it be that we are seeing symptoms of an export-driven transformation that is making propane markets behave quite different than they have in the past? Today, we’ll consider these questions and where the propane market may be headed in 2021 and beyond.
After several years of development, Shell’s $6 billion Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex — the first of its kind in the Marcellus/Utica shale play — is really taking shape about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The facility, which will consist of a 3.3-billion-lb/year ethylene plant and three polyethylene units, is in its final stages of construction, as is a pipeline that will supply regionally sourced ethane to the steam cracker. When the Falcon Pipeline and the PPC comes online, possibly as soon as 2022, they will provide a new and important outlet for the vast amounts of ethane that is now either “rejected” into natural gas for its Btu value or piped to Canada, the Gulf Coast, or the Marcus Hook export terminal near Philadelphia. Today, we discuss progress on the Marcellus/Utica’s first world-class petrochemical complex and what it will mean for the play’s NGL market.
It’s been a chaotic start to the new year for propane. In the past 12 days, the Mont Belvieu price is up over 15%, closing on Tuesday at 87 cents/gallon — the highest since October 2018. The usual culprit of winter weather has something to do with it, but not just in North America. Over the past couple of weeks, frigid temperatures in Asia, along with supply cutbacks from the Saudis, have supported U.S. propane exports to those markets, further tightening the U.S. supply/demand balance. But as is often the case these days, the market has another complicating factor. Delays transiting the Panama Canal have stacked up VLGCs — the vessels carrying U.S. propane to Asia — on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the waterway, pushing up charter rates to levels not seen in years. And on top of that, new transit-scheduling rules from the Panama Canal Authority will shove VLGCs to the back of the line, potentially making it even more difficult to get through the canal without significant delays. Today, we’ll explore these developments and what they may portend for the remaining weeks of winter.
Much the way that COVID-19 accelerated the trends toward working from anywhere, shopping online, and exercising at home, the pandemic and its far-reaching energy-market effects fast-forwarded the challenges that many North American midstream companies had been expecting to face more gradually through the 2020s. The good news — if you can call it that — is that a lot of economic pain was front-loaded into the past 10 months. The bad news is that a sizable subset of midstreamers is saddled with too much capacity in shale basins where drilling activity and production are down sharply. For them, there’s still more pain ahead, even bankruptcy in a few cases. In today’s blog, we discuss highlights from the newly released 2021 edition of East Daley Capital’s Dirty Little Secrets report about what’s ahead for the midstream sector and 27 leading companies within it.
How about some good news to start the year? Over the past few weeks, ethylene margins have blasted into the stratosphere. These are good times for steam crackers, those petrochemical plants that use mostly NGL feedstocks to produce ethylene and other building-block chemicals. As you might expect, this newfound prosperity has a lot to do with ethylene’s price. In December alone, the price of ethylene was up 50%; versus April it’s up a whopping 4X, coming in yesterday at 37.5 cents per pound (c/lb). There are a whole range of factors responsible, including petchem outages due to the hurricanes, new downstream derivative units coming online, robust exports from the Enterprise Morgan’s Point dock, and, oh yes, strong demand for downstream products — everything from food packaging to construction materials. Is the spike in ethylene prices going to last? And what does it mean for NGLs, which account for more than 95% of the feedstock supply for U.S. ethylene. We’ll explore those questions and more in this blog series we begin today.
Welcome to 2021! We finally have that train wreck of a year 2020 behind us, and it’s time to look forward. At RBN, we have a long-standing tradition of doing just that in our annual Top 10 Energy Prognostications, where we lay out our expectations for the most important developments for the coming year. But how is that possible amid the chaotic market conditions still ahead? So much has changed, so many market factors have been disrupted, and so few guideposts remain unscathed, there is just no way to predict what is going to happen next, right? Nah. All we need to do is stick out our collective RBN necks one more time, peer into our crystal ball, and see what 2021 has in store.
Whew. We made it! 2020 is finally in the rear-view mirror. And with the New Year, it’s time for the annual Top 10 Energy Prognostications blog, our long-standing RBN tradition where we lay out the most important developments we see for the year ahead. Unlike many forecasters, we also look back to see how we did with our predictions the previous year. That’s right! We actually check our work. Usually we roll our look back and prognostications for the upcoming year into a single blog. But after the mayhem of 2020, and considering how that upheaval has changed the landscape for 2021, this time around we are splitting our prognostications into two pieces. Monday’s blog will look into the RBN crystal ball one more time to see what 2021 has in store for energy markets. But today we look back. Back to what we posted on January 2, 2020.
Well, here we are. The last day of 2020. We are tempted to say “unprecedented” to describe the year. But the word is so overused — there’s been an unprecedented use of the word “unprecedented” — let’s just say it will be good riddance to have this one behind us. After all, we’ve seen a collapse in transportation fuel demand, an oil price war between major producers, negative $37/bbl crude prices, massive LNG cargo cancellations — the list goes on — all in the context of a global pandemic and much of the world committed to weaning itself off fossil fuels over the next few decades. How do you make sense of all that? How do you anticipate when it’s going to be “all right” again? Well, one thing we can do is to heed the events and trends that captured the market’s attention during all this chaos. In other words, to put a spotlight on the things that the market considers top priority — crowd-sourced market intelligence, if you will. Well, at RBN we have one way to do that. We scrupulously monitor the website hit rate of the RBN blogs that are fired off to over 30,000 people each day and, at the end of each year, we look back to see which topics generated the most interest from you, our readers. That hit rate reveals a lot about major market trends. So, once again, we look into the rear-view mirror to check out the Top 10 blogs of the year based on the number of rbnenergy.com website hits.
To succeed over the long term in the music business, professional sports, or the midstream sector, you need to learn from your successes and failures, and — most important — continue adapting and evolving. For many North American midstreamers, a key to success has been a thoughtful combination of expansion and diversification, plus an affinity for financial discipline, especially when the broader energy industry is going through tough, uncertain times. A prime example of that strategy is Canadian midstreamer Pembina Pipeline Corp., which after C$14 billion in acquisitions over the last four years is instituting a more cautious approach to new investment that’s largely based on self-funding and a new, more rigorous return criteria for new projects. Today, we preview our new Spotlight report, which focuses on the risks and rewards of Pembina’s new strategy.
No one could’ve seen the energy market disruptions of 2020 coming, and most of us are ready to write off what has been one of the most challenging years the industry has seen in a long time. Yet the events of the past year will most certainly define what unfolds in the New Year and beyond. To make sense of what 2020 will mean for the post-COVID era, we retooled and refreshed our models and forecasts to tackle the hard questions facing U.S. crude oil, natural gas, and NGL markets. As it turns out, beyond the immediate chaos of the pandemic, there is a new order taking shape, and that’s what we laid out in the RBN Fall Virtual School of Energy, sharing our results and the Excel spreadsheets behind the models to get you ready for what’s coming. Some of what we expected has come to fruition, and we still think that there is a pretty good chance that the rest will unfold in the months and years ahead. If you weren’t able to join us for the live broadcast, we invite you to sit by the fire, put your feet up and dig in over the holidays. The entire 14+ hours of streaming content, plus slide decks and spreadsheets, are available online. Today’s advertorial blog provides highlights from our key findings and the overall conference curriculum.
It’s been a wild and woolly December in the U.S. propane market. The Mont Belvieu propane price is up by almost 40%, blasting past 70 c/gal on Friday — a level not seen since February 2019, when WTI at Cushing was trading at $57/bbl, $8/bbl above where that price sits today. Is it simply cold weather goosing demand? Sure, that’s one factor. But it’s really all about exports. Just as 2020 cold weather finally arrived in U.S. propane country, exports hit the highest levels ever recorded. December Gulf Coast export volumes — 92% of the U.S. total — are up 21% over last month, and 39% above December 2019. So both international and domestic demand are pulling hard on supplies at the same time. No wonder propane prices are soaring. We started this series on winter 2020-21 supply/demand in late November by suggesting that there could be a few gotchas still out there that were not being reflected in the forward propane market. Well, we’ve now seen one of those gotchas. But there’s a lot of winter left to go — in fact, the official start of winter is this morning! Today, we review what’s happened so far in propane markets, and what could be coming next.