Posts from Todd Root

Gulf Coast LPG export capacity is tight again, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better — terminal capacity to load more barrels of propane and butane simply has not kept up with production gains. A number of new LPG dock expansions and greenfield projects are in the works, but they are 18 months or so away. In the meantime, production keeps rising, inventories are high, and it’s very unlikely we will see enough cold weather to balance the propane market. Bottom line: 2024 is shaping up to be a tough year for propane and butane prices. In today’s RBN blog, we examine what has been happening with exports, the looming dock capacity constraints, and the projects that will eventually relieve the imbalance. 

The Permian is in the midst of an NGL infrastructure boom as midstream companies are investing to keep up with the strong production growth projected over the next several years — but until these new projects are up and running, NGL pipeline capacity to the Gulf Coast is only going to get tighter. In today’s RBN blog, we look at five pipeline projects that are under construction or in the planning process that would significantly boost NGL takeaway capacity out of the Permian.

In just over a month, the price of Mont Belvieu purity ethane doubled, from 19 c/gal to 39 c/gal on Friday. Sure, the price of natural gas was up about 15% over the same period. But that increase was nowhere near ethane’s, so it was certainly not the price of gas that was making ethane take off. In fact, with ethane rocketing into space and gas prices still in the dumper, the ethane-to-gas ratio — a key measure of the value of ethane — skyrocketed, soaring from 1.2X in mid-June to 2.2X on Friday. A ratio at this level has only happened twice before in the past decade: once in 2018 due to a collision between fractionation capacity and new petchem plants coming online, and then again in 2020 during the COVID petchem demand surge. But the most recent price surge didn’t last long. On Tuesday ethane came back to earth, crashing 22% in a single day, and the ethane-to-gas ratio deflated down to 1.6X. So what’s happening? There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there that we won’t repeat here. Instead, in today’s RBN blog, we’ll lay out what we think are the most likely contributing factors behind this wild ride.

U.S. propane stocks are high, 33% over the 5-year average. Year-to-date propane exports are at a robust 1.6 MMb/d, well above the 1.4 MMb/d shipped out in 2022. Increasing propane production must be driving the growth in inventories and exports, right? Nay! Propane production is actually down, falling 9% from September 2022 to December, and even with meager growth this year is still 3% below the September high. So where are the propane export and inventory barrels coming from? And what does this mystery reveal about the trajectory of propane production over the next year or two? In today’s RBN blog, we do some sleuthing and come up with some answers.

What’s the fastest-growing U.S. hydrocarbon? You guessed it — ethane. Since 2016, ethane production has grown at almost 2.5 times the rate of crude oil or natural gas and 1.5X that of other natural gas liquids (NGLs). And there’s a lot more upside potential where that came from. It’s entirely demand-pull, meaning that U.S. ethane production growth is being driven by increasing domestic and export demand for the petrochemical feedstock. Shell’s new steam cracker in Pennsylvania is online, CP Chem and Qatar Energy are planning a new cracker in Orange, TX, and other projects are in the works. On the exports front, both Enterprise and Energy Transfer announced export-terminal-expansion projects in 2022. All this new ethane demand needs supply, and fortunately the U.S. has the barrels, not only from ever-increasing NGL production, but also from ethane that today is being rejected and sold as natural gas. And the markets will need new pipes, fractionators, and ships to get that ethane to market. With today’s RBN blog, we begin a series to explore what these developments mean for U.S. ethane market players.

Winter arrived early in many parts of the U.S. this year, with frigid temperatures and, in some places, snow measured in feet, not inches. Propane demand for heating is up, but surprisingly, inventories are high, prices are low and the outlook for the rest of the winter looks good. And propane just dodged a hail of bullets when Congress legislated away what had been a likely rail strike. Is it too early for propane marketeers to be dancing in the aisles about what looks like a safe outlook for winter season supplies? That’s the big question. Because spring is still more than three months away. And it’s a fact that sustained cold weather, logistical challenges and other factors can wreak havoc with any propane market. In today’s RBN blog, we examine the current state of the U.S. propane market, why things have improved so dramatically and, of course, what could still go wrong.

The official start of propane heating season is only two months away, and inventories are skinny, pretty close to the five-year minimum. Should that be a concern? After all, stocks were at the low end of the range last year, and it was a relatively benign market, with few supply chain disruptions. But there’s a potential gotcha in that statement. Because last year the first three months of winter were quite mild in propane country. What would happen if the market were hit with weather events like what we saw during the “polar vortex” of 2013-14, a winter etched into the minds of all propaners who lived through it? Obviously, the outcome would be quite different.  In today’s RBN blog, we continue our series on the upcoming propane heating season with a look at the challenges that unusually cold weather could bring.

We are only two months away from the official start of propane heating season in the U.S., and inventories are 3.5 MMbbl lower than last year, or 2.6 MMbbl below the five-year week-on-week low. Volumetrically, it’s a story very much like last summer: Propane exports are running high and while production is up it’s not increasing fast enough to get inventories back to where we would like to see them. But propane prices are not behaving at all like last year. At this point in 2021, the price of propane was moving higher, both in absolute terms and relative to the price of crude oil. This year, prices have been falling for the past four months and are much weaker relative to crude than a year ago. With low inventories and low prices, what are the prospects for the propane market being prepared for the upcoming heating season? And what are the risks if there's a cold-weather surprise? We’ll consider those issues and more in the blog series we begin today, focusing first on how we got here.