First ethane soon to be piped out of upper Ohio Valley - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

First ethane soon to be piped out of upper Ohio Valley

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The first pipeline capacity for relieving the upper Ohio Valley's ethane bottleneck is just about to go into service.

Mariner West, a joint venture of MarkWest Energy Partners and Sunoco Logistics, will carry ethane from MarkWest's Houston, Pa. fractionation facility north to existing Sunoco pipeline, then west to Michigan and up into Sarnia in Ontario, Canada.

Ethane is one of the natural gas liquids that come to the surface with methane in the "wet" region of the Marcellus and Utica shales: the upper Ohio Valley, where Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia come together.

Separation technologies, markets and transport have long been established in the region for propane, butane and other liquids. But dealing with large quantities of ethane has only become necessary in the region in the last few years as shale gas producers focused on wet gas to take advantage of a premium for liquids in the current low natural gas price environment.

Without the means of separating and transporting ethane, producers have had to leave it in the methane and sell at a loss to homes and businesses as part of the natural gas.

Midstream, or transportation and storage, companies foresaw several years ago the need to take ethane away to markets on the U.S. Gulf coast and in Sarnia, and Mariner West will be the first to come online.

Announced in September 2011, Mariner West is expected to open with the 50,000 barrels per day capacity originally planned, and on or very close to the hoped-for July 2013 startup date.

"We're kind of in the initial start-up stages of our de-ethanization facility at our complex in Houston, and so probably in the next few weeks here it'll be in full operation," said MarkWest Vice President Joshua Hallenbeck.

The statement reflects the incremental way new infrastructure will come online, because both separation and transportation facilities are needed.

The de-ethanization facility at Houston will have the capacity to produce 38,000 barrels per day of ethane. Following the startup of that unit this month, MarkWest also has coming online de-ethanization at Majorsville at the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border later this year, another unit at Houston early next year and a fourth unit in the Utica Shale in Ohio in late 2014, all at the same 38,000 bpd capacity.

Those de-ethanizers will feed the Mariner West pipeline and, later, the Enterprise Products Partners Appalachia-to-Texas, or ATEX, pipeline starting in early 2014 and Mariner East to Marcus Hook near Philadelphia in early 2015.

The growing amounts of ethane have been raising the energy content of the region's methane up to established pipeline specifications, in some cases requiring waivers to go beyond those specifications, even to the point of limiting the amount of methane that can be piped out of the region.

"This is going to help the BTU (British thermal unit, or a measure of energy content) levels of the methane decrease, which is critical to unlocking the full value of the shale gas resources," Hallenbeck said.