Demand for ethane from U.S. steam crackers is rising as recently completed ethane-only crackers ramp up to full production and additional crackers are finished. To keep pace with demand growth, a portion of the ethane now being “rejected” into the natural gas stream and sold for its Btu value will instead need to be left in the mixed-NGLs stream and fractionated into purity-product ethane. This raises two questions. First, in which shale plays will this shift from ethane rejection to ethane production occur? And second, how much will ethane prices need to increase to encourage the shift and make the required incremental volumes of ethane available? Today, we continue a series on ethane-market developments with a look at where the next tranche of ethane supply will come from and how high ethane prices might need to rise.
Posts from Kelly Van Hull
The U.S. ethane market has experienced major ups and downs in the past couple of years. First, there was sharply rising demand from new steam crackers, a fractionation-capacity crunch and soaring ethane prices. Then came an ethane demand slump, plummeting prices and a big jump in inventories. More recently, though, the market seems to have returned to a state of relative equilibrium. Ethane prices have settled in — at least for now — at about 22 cents/gallon (gal), a couple of pennies below where they had been standing rock-steady before all hell broke loose. Ethane demand from existing steam crackers is rising again, and new cracker capacity is coming online. The questions now are, with demand on the upswing, will ethane prices be rising too — and, if so, by how much? And what does that mean for steam cracker economics? Today, we discuss recent developments in the ethane market and explain why there’s good reason to believe that ethane prices won’t be spiking anytime soon.
The ethane market isn’t for the faint at heart — it’s got lots of ups and downs, and it’s impacted by an unusually wide range of variables. A year ago this month, a combination of fractionation constraints in Mont Belvieu and rising demand from new ethane-only steam crackers sent ethane prices north of 60 cents/gallon. For most of the time since then, though, ethane prices were in something close to freefall, bottoming out at only 10 cents in late July before rebounding in recent weeks to 20 cents or so. During the big, months-long price decline, ethane traders and cracker operators did what anyone does when they can buy something they’ll need in the future for next to nothing — they stocked up. Today, we examine recent trends in ethane supply, demand, prices and storage levels, and take a look ahead.
Energy markets are constantly changing, but pipelines can take years to complete, and once they’re in the ground, that’s where they stay. Therefore, it’s critical for midstream companies to build as much flexibility as possible into their plans for new pipelines and other infrastructure, because you never know what the markets for crude oil, natural gas, NGLs and refined products might have in store. Energy Transfer apparently has that flexibility in mind as it’s been building out its Mariner East pipeline system across Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex (MHIC) near Philadelphia. Today, we consider recent developments regarding these key midstream assets in the Northeast and their still-evolving uses.
For a few days in late July, the price differential between propane stored at Enterprise Products Partners’ salt caverns in Mont Belvieu, TX, and propane stored at facilities owned by others a few hundred yards away quickly widened to as much as 10 cents/gallon. That’s by far the biggest spread of its type we can recall, and while we can’t say for certain what caused the “Enterprise-vs.-others” propane differential to blow out, there’s a likely — and familiar — culprit: NGL infrastructure constraints. Something else this unusual pricing event confirmed is that, no matter where the NGL storage, fractionation or pipeline constraint may occur, it almost always has an outsized effect on the much smaller NGL storage and fractionation hub in Conway, KS. What’s with that? Today, we look at the recent, rapid slide in propane prices at Enterprise’s Mont Belvieu storage facility and discuss what it tells us.
By the third quarter of next year, the Enterprise Hydrocarbons Terminal (EHT) on the Houston Ship Channel will have the capacity to export nearly 1.1 MMb/d of LPG — 435 Mb/d more than it can today. Also, Targa Resources and Energy Transfer are each planning 200-Mb/d expansions at their LPG export docks along the Texas Coast, and Phillips 66 and MPLX may very well be announcing projects of their own soon. All this suggests that there will be ample dock space available to propane and butane shippers if, as we expect, LPG volumes continue to ramp up in the 2020s. And, with Enterprise Products Partners’ promise to offer super-competitive rates at EHT, shippers are likely to enjoy low send-out costs. Today, we discuss recent developments on the propane/butane marine-terminal front and what they mean for LPG shippers and exports.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two months ago, NGL prices and market differentials were soaring, in large part due to fractionation capacity constraints on the Gulf Coast at Mont Belvieu. The constraints have not eased, yet the same prices and differentials have come crashing down from those lofty levels. Why has this happened, you ask, and how long will it last? There are a lot of factors contributing, but two of the most significant are seasonal NGL demand shifts and what’s going on with crude oil. Today, we examine the recent swings in NGL prices and market differentials and what may be around the next corner for these markets.
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.