Significant production growth in recent years has helped establish the United States as a net propane exporter, with an increase in export capacity now allowing domestic propane to reach markets across the globe, according to a recent report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
After domestic production began to increase in 2008, the United States transitioned to a net exporter of propane in 2010, according to EIA. Total U.S. propane exports have risen sharply each year since 2011, corresponding to increases in production and export terminal capacity.
“U.S. exports of propane initially reached nearby markets in Mexico, the Caribbean and South America, doubling between 2010 and 2013, from 88,000 b/d to 198,000 b/d. By the latter half of 2013, substantial quantities of U.S. propane exports were being sent to the European market,” the EIA said.
U.S. exports to Europe have risen from 25,000 b/d in 2012 to around 100,000 b/d through the first eight months of 2015. Exports to Asia have also risen sharply in the first eight months of 2015, up to 189,000 b/d compared to 65,000 b/d in the year-ago period.
From 2011 to 2014, annual domestic propane production increased 376,000 b/d, with net exports increasing 292,000 b/d, EIA said, attributing the production increase to shale gas and tight oil development.
Since 2008, the Mont Belvieu hub’s wholesale propane price has fallen well below the international benchmark Saudi Aramco monthly contract price, with a differential of as much as 89 cents/gallon in 2012. Since then, the pricing gap has shrunk as U.S. propane exports have increased, down to around 40 cents/gallon in 2015, EIA said.
“Despite these increased exports, the United States remains well supplied with propane, especially in comparison to the situation during the winter of 2013-2014 when there were difficulties supplying the Midwest...Since then, domestic propane production has increased, propane infrastructure and market participants have adjusted to new supply patterns, Midwest propane inventories are much higher, and total U.S. propane inventories are at the highest levels on record,” EIA said.
Companies seem to be taking note of the opportunity presented by propane exports.
In a third quarter conference call Tuesday, Sempra Energy President Mark Snell said the company is evaluating the possibility of exporting propane and other natural gas liquids (NGL). With an existing pipeline project in Mexico and an ongoing joint venture with state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos, NGL exports such as propane could be a natural extension for Sempra, according to Snell.
“Both in the United States and in Mexico, we’ve studied opportunities to export various kinds of natural gas liquids,” Snell said. “We haven’t put a project together or announced anything, but it is something we study all the time.”
Snell said it is a top-of-the-line subject for review and analysis.
“There is a real need to move some of these liquids out of the producing areas, and to the extent that we find an opportunity that works for us, I think we would be willing to capitalize on it,” he said.