Ethane pIpelines out well ahead of local cracking capacity - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Ethane pIpelines out well ahead of local cracking capacity

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More than 80 percent of proposed new capacity for making ethylene is in the Gulf region. Pipelines coming online 2013-15 will send a lot of ethane out of the Marcellus Shale region before a cracker can be built.

For those keeping up with what will happen to the ethane associated with all this new natural gas production, there's an up-to-date list of proposed ethylene plants in the May 2 release of the natural gas liquids section of the U.S. Energy Information's Annual Energy Outlook 2013.

"Proposed additions of U.S. ethylene production capacity, 2013-2020," Table 7 of AEO 2013, lists 14 projects totaling 10.1 million metric tons per year of proposed ethylene production capacity.

Ethane is the lightest of the natural gas liquids that come up with "liquids-rich" methane. In this region, that includes southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia in the Marcellus Shale and eastern Ohio in the Utica.

The ethane molecule is "cracked" to make ethylene, the most important raw material for the plastics industry. Propylene, another important raw material, is a byproduct of that process.

The proposed 10.1 million mtpy ethylene production capacity adds to a current installed U.S. nameplate capacity of around 28 million mtpy.

Of that proposed 10.1 million mtpy, just 16 percent — the 1.3 million mtpy steam cracker Shell is considering building northwest of Pittsburgh and the 0.3 million mtpy catalytic cracker Aither Chemicals of South Charleston has said it wants to build — is in the Marcellus and Utica region.

The rest is on the Gulf Coast.

A small part of the 10.1 million mtpy capacity will convert propane directly to propylene.

As long as we're catching up on ethane, let's look at it from the production side, too.

The EIA's May 2 release did not include an update on anticipated volumes of ethane to be extracted in the Marcellus and Utica region.

But when the Bluegrass project was announced in March, the partners said natural gas liquids volumes from the northeast are anticipated to reach 1.2 million barrels per day by 2020. Ethane is perhaps one-third of total liquids volumes, which is 400,000 barrels per day.

At the same time, the pipeline capacity coming online in 2013-15 to send ethane out of the region may total well over 300,000 bpd.

Sunoco Logistics Partners and MarkWest's Mariner West pipeline will feed cracking capacity in Ontario, Canada starting this year, starting with a capacity of about 50,000 bpd.

Their Mariner East pipeline will send ethane and propane east for processing and distribution starting in 2015, with a beginning capacity for the two liquids of 70,000 bpd.

And two much larger pipelines have been proposed to take ethane and other liquids from the Marcellus and Utica region to the Gulf.

The ATEX Express, or Appalachia to Texas, pipeline under construction by Enterprise Products Partners will carry 190,000 barrels per day, or bpd, of ethane specifically and is scheduled to go into operation in 2014.

The Williams and Bluegrass Products Partners Bluegrass Pipeline would carry not only ethane but mixed natural gas liquids, 200,000 bpd to start with the possibility to expand to 400,000 bpd, to the Gulf region beginning in late 2015.

Local cracker plants are well behind the pipelines in taking advantage of the supply.

Aither's cracker design is relatively small and relatively fast to build, on the order of a few years. But Shell's very large cracker will need 60,000-80,000 bpd and, once commissioned, will take perhaps a decade to build.