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.
Posts from Kelly Van Hull
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.
With U.S. NGL production hitting a record high of just over 4.0 MMb/d in the fourth quarter of 2017 and ethane production also reaching record volumes at 1.6 MMb/d, the price for ethane has remained stuck at about 25 c/gal — where it’s been for the past two years, even though prices for other NGLs are up over the same period. The combination of roaring high-ethane-content Permian and SCOOP/STACK NGL volumes, coupled with steam cracker outages and construction delays due to Hurricane Harvey, have landed us here. So where do we expect the ethane market to go now as incremental cracker and export demand ramp up in 2018 and 2019? Today, we continue a series on our updated NGL market forecast, highlighting the NGL product whose market is going through the most changes: ethane.
In recent weeks, both crude oil and natural gas production have breached all-time records. So it should come as no surprise the same thing happened to NGLs — production blasted to over 4.0 MMb/d in the fourth quarter of 2017, and by our estimates will move considerably higher this year. This is a particularly big deal for the ethane market, which has spent the last eight years waiting patiently for a wave of new Gulf Coast ethane-only petrochemical plants — a.k.a. “steam crackers” — to come online in 2018. Well, here we are in 2018 and new demand from the crackers is finally kicking in. The good news for petchems is that all of the incremental NGL production means the supply of ethane available to the market is growing too, right on cue. What do these developments mean for future NGL production, demand and prices? Today, we begin a new blog series discussing our updated NGL market forecasts, starting with that NGL product whose market is going through the most changes: ethane.
With ethane prices remaining below 30 c/gal, making it only slightly more valuable than natural gas at Henry Hub on a Btu equivalence, most natural gas processors/producers can earn a greater profit when ethane is sold with natural gas (rejected) than when it is extracted and sold with the NGLs. How much more money you may be wondering? The answer is — it depends. Are there downstream pipeline contracts and sunk costs impacting the decision making? Are the contracted volumes on an ethane-only pipeline or a raw mix pipeline? How far away is the producing basin from the Gulf Coast market? How do all these factors come together to determine whether ethane is produced or rejected and the value created? Today, we continue our discussion of the MQQV gas processing model — this time focusing on the Value principle. This is our final blog focusing on the MQQV model and, with it, we are making it available to all Backstage Pass holders should you want to run scenarios of your own.
There has been growing concern regarding NGL pipeline takeaway capacity out of the Williston Basin and the Niobrara — particularly the DJ Basin — over the past year, with one of the major pipes through those regions now running full. Finally, ONEOK has announced plans for the Elk Creek Pipeline, which will have an initial capacity of 240 Mb/d and be expandable to 400 Mb/d. The new pipe will transport mixed, unfractionated NGLs from eastern Montana to the Conway/Bushton fractionation hub in central Kansas, and provide long-term relief for a lot of Bakken, Powder River and Denver-Julesburg (DJ) Basin producers. But with an end-of-2019 in-service date, will the new capacity come soon enough to avert NGL takeaway constraints? Today, we discuss the Elk Creek project, the flows on existing NGL pipes to Conway/Bushton, and the growing significance of ethane as pipelines fill.
Prices for heavy NGLs (propane, butanes, natural gasoline) have been rising fast since the middle of 2017, but the same cannot be said for the price of ethane. For most natural gas processors/producers, low ethane prices mean that ethane continues to be worth more when sold with natural gas (rejected) than when it is extracted and sold with the other liquids. But as NGL production continues to grow, hitting a record-high 3,968 Mb/d in October 2017, and new steam crackers are just starting to come online, there is a limit to how much ethane can be left in the residue gas stream without violating dry gas pipeline Btu specifications. How do processing plant designs, gas pipeline specs and economics play into a gas processor’s decision regarding whether to extract or reject ethane? Today, we continue our discussion of RBN’s MQQV gas processing model — this time focusing on the Quantity and Quality principles.
NGL prices have been rising fast since the middle of this year, but the same cannot be said for the price of natural gas. So how does this market scenario play out for gas processors who make their money extracting NGLs from gas? It plays out pretty darn good. In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how the relationship between the price of NGLs versus natural gas can be assessed by the Frac Spread, and concluded that things are definitely looking up for gas processing economics. But we also concluded that the Frac Spread misses the impact of a few key factors, including the BTU value and composition of the inlet gas stream. So today we’ll see what it takes to incorporate those factors into our assessment and, in the process, do a deep dive into the math of gas processing to examine the relationship between volumetric capacity, gallons of NGLs per 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas (GPMs) and moles. Today, we continue our latest expedition into the wilds of gas processing.
Not long after crude oil prices crashed in 2014, natural gas processing economics hit the skids. From late 2014 through the first half of 2017, times were tough for natural gas processors and the producers processing natural gas to extract NGLs in their plants. That’s because the per-MMBtu price difference between natural gas prices and NGL prices was low. Very low. In fact, during 2015-16, it was the lowest it’s been over the past decade except for a brief period during the 2009 financial meltdown. But things are looking up. Thanks to a big boost in from propane and butane prices — and, to a lesser extent, rising ethane and natural gasoline prices — natural gas processing economics look healthier today than they have in years. It is going to get even better as more new ethane-only steam crackers come online. Given these developments, it is clearly time for another deep dive into what makes gas processing economics work, and how the numbers are about to change. Today, we begin our latest expedition into the wilds of gas processing.
Available ethane in the Marcellus/Utica is expected to increase 70% by 2022 to 800 Mb/d, from about 470 Mb/d this year. That should be good news for the slew of ethane-only steam crackers coming online in that time frame, primarily along the Gulf Coast. But unfortunately, there is limited ethane pipeline takeaway capacity out of the region and today more than half of the potential ethane supply is being rejected into the natural gas pipeline stream. Without additional takeaway capacity, that rejected volume is expected to grow and few additional ethane barrels will make their way to the Gulf Coast. The question is, will transportation economics support additional pipeline development to where the demand is growing the most? Today, we will explore how the changing ethane market is likely to impact the Marcellus/Utica producing region.