Posts from Callie Mitchell

Yup. Pigs are critical to the safety and integrity of pipelines. Some are your basic utilitarian pigs, while others are quite smart, if not downright cool. No, these are not the pigs down on the farm. Instead, these pigs are devices run through pipes to clean, inspect, and support “batching” on hydrocarbon pipeline networks. They help ensure the safe and efficient transportation of crude oil, NGLs, petroleum products, and natural gas through more than 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the U.S. If you’re interested in energy and energy delivery, you’ve gotta know about pigs, and that's just what we'll be discussing in today’s blog.

About two-thirds of all of the propane consumed in the U.S. is used as fuel — for indoor and outdoor cooking, home heating, water heaters, drying crops, and running forklifts and fleet vehicles. The other one-third is used as a feedstock for producing ethylene and other petchems. About 95% of the propane supply to meet this demand is produced and processed right here in the U.S. of A., making propane the most American fuel we’ve got. But when firing up the grill out back and watching that first propane molecule flash to life, most backyard chefs don’t think much about the long and winding road their propane has traveled. It’s actually a fascinating tale of supply-chain logistics that involves high pressures, bitter cold, wild rides up and down tall towers, storage deep underground, and, of course, trains, trucks, and tanks. We think it’s a tale that needs to be told, and that’s what we’ve been doing in this update of another Greatest Hit blog.

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.

When firing up the backyard propane grill and watching that first propane molecule flash to life, most people don’t think much about what it took to get that fuel to the cylinder they picked up at the store. But that long and winding road from the production well to the tank beneath your grill is actually a fascinating tale of supply-chain logistics involving producers, midstreamers, and propane retailers. In today’s blog, we will take that interesting and sometimes mysterious trip with a molecule of propane. We will travel over 1,000 miles, moving in and out of various facilities, purifying our product and incurring various costs each step of the way. So strap on your seat belt for a selection from our greatest blog hits, in which we track a typical propane molecule’s journey from beginning to end.

Over the past five years, the production of natural gas liquids from gas processing plants has soared by almost 2 million barrels per day (2 MMb/d), or about 60%. That has been great news for natural gas producers, processors, and end-use markets. But there is a catch: the rate of production does not match up with demand. While production is a steady, “ratable” volume, demand is anything but ratable. Demand swings with the gasoline blending season, cold weather (or lack thereof) in the propane market, export demand, petchem feedstock economics, the impact of COVID-19 on transportation fuels, and a myriad of other factors. The flywheel that balances supply and demand on any given day is storage. Not just any storage, though. For NGLs, storage of large volumes means salt caverns. Huge caverns thousands of feet below the surface. Today, we update one of RBN’s Greatest Hits blogs and take a deep dive into the history of NGL storage — all the way back to Smoky Billue.

A quarter million dollars for mud?  Mud for a single horizontal well can cost that much and more.  As horizontal well laterals keep getting longer, they need that much more mud.   So the $10 billion drilling mud fluids business is growing fast.  The industry has a unique supply chain, with production, storage and distribution infrastructure that rival other aspects of the oil & gas drilling business.  But you don’t hear a lot about mud.  It is one of those unsung heroes of the shale revolution, getting little attention in industry press or the investment community. But producers know they can’t do their job without just the right mud formula.  Today we begin an in depth look at drilling mud fluid and its importance to shale drillers.

Big increases in LPG (propane and butane) exports are planned for the west coast.  In March (2014) Petrogas purchased the Ferndale, WA terminal from Chevron – the only existing west coast LPG terminal.  Then in April, Sage Midstream announced that the company is developing another LPG terminal about 200 miles south at the Port of Longview, WA.    Both terminals are primarily targeting propane exports, not the export of butane that has been the mainstay of Ferndale for decades.  What is the logic behind these deals?  What needs to happen to make them work?  Today in this second part of our series on the new west coast LPG game, we take a closer look at these two facilities, including their potential supply and market destinations.

All the export LPGs on the West Coast are in a tank in the middle of Washington State in somebody else’s name.   So if you’re dreamin’ about LPG exports, the West Coast is a brand new game.  Apologies to Larry Gatlin.

On March 4th, Petrogas announced the purchase of the Ferndale, WA LPG terminal, the only functioning butane and propane export facility on the U.S. west coast.  Then last Thursday (April 10th) Sage Midstream announced a project to build another world scale LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) export terminal a couple of hundred miles south at the Port of Longview, WA.  These are big developments for the west coast LPG markets. Today we begin a blog series that examines the history of Ferndale, how it has been used in the past, and what these two announcements mean for the future of west coast propane and butane markets.

The recent propane shortage is being called a “crisis” and for good reason. But like so many “crises” there is more to the story than is generally known and in this case it’s worth a careful examination of the events involved.  Clearly it was a perfect storm in the balance of supply and demand, resulting in huge price spikes.  And the consequences included panic, headline news, government intervention and of course, lots of finger pointing.  Today we look at how the market responded and why the propane industry will once again be stronger for it.

NGL volumes continue to climb because of all the surging “wet” shale gas production.  These days about 7% of gas plant NGL production is “isobutane”, (also known as IC4, I Grade, methylpropane, R600a, iso and “izo” to our friends in Canada).  Over the past two years gas plant production of iso is up about 25%, and that volume is expected to increase another 30% over the next two years.  Most isobutane is used by refineries to make high-octane alkylate, but what about the rest?  Today we take a closer look at this lesser known natural gas liquid (NGL) and the sometimes exotic uses it is put to.

The northern corn-belt states are winding down from a very wet bumper crop of corn which has required a lot of grain drying, fired by propane.  That has translated into a shortage of propane supplies – so much so that seven governors recently issued emergency orders to expedite propane deliveries to their states.  Now, with about three weeks left before the official onset of winter (and it feels like winter already), 2013 Midwestern propane problems should be behind us.  But what about next year?  In 2014, Cochin pipeline – one of the most significant traditional sources of propane for the region goes away.  Kinder Morgan (current owner and operator of Cochin) is reversing the system and turning it into a diluent pipeline.  Volumes of propane previously delivered by Cochin must come from somewhere else.  Today we’ll continue our series looking at upper Midwest propane and how the region is likely to adjust in the post-Cochin market.

Corn drying in the Midwest is finally wrapping up, but farmers and grain elevators are still short of propane supplies even after emergency orders were imposed by several Midwestern governors. The shortage has contributed to a spike in propane prices and the Conway, KS market jumped above Mont Belvieu last week for the first time since February 2011.  But, there is more to the story.   The upper Midwest is enjoying the largest bumper crop of corn in the record books, and due to recent weather it is “wet” corn needing more drying, thus more propane.  With the U.S. “bumper crop” of propane from processing shale gas flooding the market, you might wonder why there is a problem.  Clearly the answer is logistics – having the barrels at the right place at the right time.  And that’s the reason for more concern when we get to next year.  Because one of the primary propane supply conduits to the Midwest – Cochin pipeline - goes away in early 2014.  Today we start a series to look at what’s going on with Midwest propane and how that market is likely to change when Cochin is reversed and turned into a diluent pipeline.

The oil and gas pipeline industry depends on “Pigs” (pipeline integrity gauges) to verify pipelines.  They help avoid leaks, fractures and costly unscheduled service interruptions. As massive new oil and gas pipeline construction continues in the US and as existing pipelines get older the pig business is becoming more valuable. But like anything else, they aren’t perfect; and pigging experts and pipeline operators are motivated to make them better. Today we continue our analysis of the pig business with a look at what some of the movers and shakers are doing to support new demands and challenges in this booming industry.

The pig, or “Pipeline Integrity Gauge,” is a sophisticated device that is critical to the safety and integrity of pipelines.  The oil and gas pipeline transportation industry can’t live without them.  They help ensure the safe and efficient passage of crude oil, NGLs, petroleum products and natural gas through more than 2.3 million miles of pipeline in the U.S, according to PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration). Over 3,000 pipeline operators in the U.S. manage this transport system. Their success is due in large part to pigs.  Today we investigate the role of pigs in oil and gas pipeline transportation infrastructure.

Just like every other kind of mechanical equipment, rail tank cars require maintenance every once in a while. Valves can leak.  Linings wear down.  Railings, platforms, and brake equipment need periodic repairs.  And not surprisingly, the more miles you put on a tank car, the more maintenance it is going to need.  As the crude-by-rail phenomenon has grown, so has the rate of ‘bad orders’ – rail cars that must be taken out of service for maintenance.  Handling bad orders is a new issue for many producers and refiners just now getting their feet wet in the business. Everyone agrees that this is a very important issue, and the rail industry is not taking it lightly. Today we explore the implications of bad orders in the crude-by-rail market and how progressive solutions are on their way.