In May 2019, the first-ever propane unit train from the Bakken to Mexico reached its destination, and since then, three more of these 100-car, single-commodity “bulk” trains have made the same trip. Facilitating these shipments by Twin Eagle Liquids Marketing is Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s (MPC) unit train-loading terminal in Fryburg, ND, which was initially set up to load crude oil but was recently expanded to handle propane too. And soon, the terminal in Torreón, Mexico, that has been receiving these unit trains will have a new loop track too, enabling producers and marketers to take full advantage of the bulk transport option. Today, we look at the economics and challenges of this relatively new propane export route.
In May 2019, Twin Eagle Liquids Marketing shipped a 100-car train filled with propane from North Dakota to Mexico, marking the first-ever single-commodity train — i.e. “unit train” — between the Bakken and the U.S.’s southern neighbor. As it turns out, it was also the first of what appears to be a regularly scheduled run to Mexico. Since May, three more unit trains have made the journey south from the Bakken’s first unit train terminal for propane. Rail shipments of propane to Mexico as part of mixed-goods trains aren’t new, but figuring out how to economically ship large quantities of propane via unit trains has long evaded NGL marketers and producers — that is, until now. What are the economics and other factors that finally made it possible, and what are the prospects and challenges ahead for unit-train exports to Mexico? Today, we look at how the first all-propane train to Mexico came to pass and what the outlook might be for these shipments to continue.
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.
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.
During the spring, summer and fall of 2016, U.S. propane inventories grew much more slowly than they did in the same period in 2014 and 2015, in part due to fast-rising exports. The situation isn’t dire––propane stock levels are relatively high as the winter of 2016-17 really kicks in, largely because last winter was a mild one that left inventories in good shape when the 2016 stock-building period started. But even-higher exports and the possibility of a “real” winter this time around raise the specter of an especially big drop in stored volumes over the next three months. Today we assess what the combination of higher exports and even an average winter could mean for propane inventories.
U.S. propane inventories rose by an impressive 55 million barrels (MMbbl) during the spring/summer/fall of 2014, and the mild winter of 2014-15 left propane stocks at well-above-normal levels the following spring. Another impactful inventory build—53 MMbbl—occurred during 2015’s March-to-November stock-building season, leaving propane stocks at a record 104 MMbbl as the freakishly mild winter of 2015-16 started. But propane inventories grew much more slowly through the spring/summer/fall of 2016, due in part to rising exports, and—while stocks are high as this winter begins—even-higher exports and the possibility of real winter weather raise the specter of an especially big drop in stored volumes. In today’s blog we begin a series on the significance of propane inventory levels with a look at why propane stocks rose so much in the 2014 and 2015 stock-building seasons.
U.S. propane production from natural gas processing has doubled over the past five years, but domestic demand has hardly moved the needle. So the only way the propane market has balanced is through exports, and it is no overstatement to say that the ship has really come in for U.S. propane exporters. All those exports have also helped support the U.S.
Mexico has become an important market for U.S. natural gas exports, and it is now opening up as a market for U.S.-sourced crude oil exchanges. There’s also potential for more exports of liquefied petroleum gas, particularly now that national oil company Pemex’s monopoly as LPG-import middleman is about to end and Mexico is planning to deregulate retail LPG prices. Today we continue our analysis of Mexico’s LPG market with a look at how the vast majority of U.S. propane and butane is transported to Mexican consumers.
Fast-rising propane production in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays, the reversal and repurposing of the Cochin Pipeline and other factors have exposed gaps in the midstream infrastructure that shuttles and stores large volumes of propane within the U.S. Perhaps one of the most obvious of those gaps is the inability to pipe propane from Ohio/West Virginia/southwestern Pennsylvania to big propane consumption areas in the nation’s heartland. Enterprise Products Partners has been working on a fix—a relatively short pipeline across northern Illinois that it seems would add a lot of flexibility per mile.Today, we consider Enterprise’s planned propane takeaway project and how it might affect the propane market.
A proposed BASF plant in Freeport, TX - that would make propylene from natural gas – is expected to be the subject of a final investment decision in 2016. If the plant is built it will have a similar purpose to another 6 Gulf Coast plants being built or planned in the next few years to make propylene from propane. All these plants are designed to make up for lower propylene output from U.S. petrochemical steam crackers using ethane, which yields less propylene from the cracking process. Today we discuss why using natural gas as a feedstock instead of propane might make sense.
Starting at the end of 2015 six new North American propane dehydrogenation (PDH) plants are expected to come online. These new plants will have the capacity to convert up to 170 Mb/d of propane into much more valuable propylene. If all the plants are built, these new supplies of propylene should more than replace declining output from olefin crackers and refineries. These on-purpose PDH plants should also make propylene supply more directly responsive to feedstock prices. Today we describe how PDH plants are likely to impact the propane market.
We’ve done several blogs over the past months about the impact of the back-to-back crop drying and Polar Vortex anomalies on natural gas liquids (NGL) prices in general and propane prices in particular. Today we are going to take a walk further downstream and look at how increasing propane exports, the weather related anomalies and subsequent price spikes shifted the petrochemical feedstock slate. From mid-year 2013 to early 2014, huge volumes of propane were backed out of the petrochemical sector, replaced for the most part by ethane. These swings have important implications for the future consumption of NGL feedstocks by petchems. In today’s blog, we assess petrochemical feedstock switching in the 2013-14 timeframe, and beyond.
We’ve been talking a lot over the past year about the need for increasing exports to balance the U.S propane market as growth in production from gas processing plants outruns domestic demand. U.S. propane production from gas processing has increased by over 100 Mb/d since January 2013, and there’s lots more to come. For the first time U.S. propane exports exceeded 400 Mb/d in October 2013 thanks to growing U.S supply and infrastructure developments including dock expansions by Enterprise and Targa. But just after exports ramped up, the propane market was hit by a couple of wild cards – a late and very heavy crop drying season and a series of record cold temperature events. In today’s blog, we continue our series covering the record setting 2014 NGL markets.
The values of the crude-to-gas ratio and the Frac spread have fallen fifty percent from their highs this year. Frac spreads represent the difference between the value of natural gas and natural gas liquids (NGLs), which are heavily influenced by the price of crude. Thus the Frac spread is in effect tied to the gas-to crude ratio. Current forward curves suggest that the crude-to-gas ratio will fall another 50 percent over the next few years. Today we ask whether the Frac spread will continue it’s fall next year and beyond.