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The Long and Winding Road, Part 2 - A Propane Molecule's Journey to Mont Belvieu and Beyond

When you talk about energy molecules, propane takes the prize for the most versatile. In addition to its well-known uses for BBQ grills, indoor cooking, and home heating, propane is used for drying crops, as a feedstock for petrochemicals, as an engine fuel for forklifts and fleet vehicles, and in recent years, as an export product in its own right. Propane moves to market on pipelines, railcars, ships, barges, trucks — just about any form of transportation you can imagine. But exactly how any particular molecule of propane makes the journey from the instant it comes out of a well to all those market destinations can be a mystery to all but a small cadre of propane market insiders. In another in our series of updates to RBN’s greatest hit blogs, we are delving into this mystery, one step at a time, today focusing on transportation from the producing basin to storage and fractionation at the Mont Belvieu hub, and the transformation of the generic commodity to a marketable fuel.

In this blog series, we are tracking the journey of a typical propane molecule from the point that it departs a shale formation 10,000 feet below the surface of West Texas until it arrives at the burner tip of a propane BBQ grill in your backyard. In Part 1, we started with the moment our little propane molecule squeezed through a fracture in the Permian’s Spraberry formation and into the wellbore of Brook-Funkhouser 19-A — B-F 19-A for short — a Pioneer Natural Resources well in Upton County, TX, about 40 miles due south of Midland. Our molecule reached the surface as part of a bubbling, comingled, multi-phase stream of crude oil, produced water, and natural gas laden with natural gas liquids (NGLs) and a host of impurities. It then was processed through a two-phase vertical separator and entered a heater treater where it was “flashed off” with the stream of NGL-rich natural gas. Next stop, the gas gathering system, where our molecule was jostled and bounced through a maze of small-diameter pipelines before arriving at Targa Resources’ 200-MMcf/d Joyce natural gas processing plant. There, things got really chilly, down to minus 120 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point, most of the NGLs in the gas stream, including our little molecule, condensed into liquid phase, while the methane kept on flowing into a natural gas pipeline.

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