U.S. chemical and plastic exports should expect boost from shale gas.
By Chris Dupin
The boom in U.S. natural gas production is expected to help boost exports and reduce imports of chemicals and plastics, according to chemical industry analysts and logistics services providers.
“Between shale gas recovery technologies and conventional natural gas reserves, there is great potential for a 21st century renaissance in U.S.-based manufacturing and exports in particular,” said Richard Bolte, president and chief executive officer of BDP International, a Philadelphia-based logistics firm that has long been a leader in serving the chemical industry.
“A growing number of multinational chemical companies, for example, are building new plant capacity here because natural gas is a key feedstock for production,” Bolte explained. “Just as importantly, the U.S. already enjoys superior transportation/logistics infrastructure, supply chain security and a world-class workforce. All of that adds up to a smart investment in industrial development and hedge on chemical sourcing in less stable regions.”
“Clearly the shale development is having a tremendous influence on the future of U.S. petrochemicals,” said John Stekla, director of ethylene studies at IHS Chemicals, a research and publishing firm. “Five years ago when I would talk about the ethylene business I was talking an obituary for North American petrochemicals. Today, it’s birth announcement after birth announcement.”
Ethylene is a basic chemical, the first step in manufacturing a wide array of chemicals, plastics, and fibers.
“Based on industry reports, we estimate that the U.S. chemicals industry has invested $15 billion in ethylene production, increasing capacity by 33 percent,” said Garrett Gee, director of chemical advisory services at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
In a report issued last year, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said “because the price of ethane is low relative to oil-based feedstocks used in other parts of the world, U.S.-based chemical manufacturers are contributing to strong exports of petrochemical derivatives and plastics.” The trade group claimed that “thanks in large part to shale gas, chemical exports at the Port of New Orleans jumped 34 percent last year.”
Speaking at an event in October, Cal Dooley, the ACC’s president and CEO, said “with global oil prices hovering around $100 a barrel, and U.S. prices on natural gas prices under $4 per million BTU, America’s chemical industry is now in its strongest competitive position for the first time in years.”
As an example, PwC calculated the potential selling price of high density polyethylene — a ubiquitous plastic used in making everything from food containers to pipe — would be $542 per ton, assuming a 3 percent margin, if natural gas can be purchased at $3 per million BTU. That compares to $1,304 per ton, if gas was selling at its historical price of about $12.50 and cheaper than the $713 a ton it would cost to make it in Saudi Arabia or $2,079 in Asia because of higher cost methods of producing ethylene in those regions (with an ethane-butane mixture in Saudi Arabia and from petroleum in Asia).
Dooley noted that the affect of shale gas is likely to be very broad as “many industries, including auto manufacturing, agriculture, health care and technology rely on chemistry and plastics.”
Though the timing is not entirely clear, Stekla said there are projects that will increase ethylene capacity by 30 percent through 2018-19. Most of the plants will be located near the Gulf of Mexico.
“These are huge investments,” he said. “All of that is based on the low-cost feedstock position. What has happened is that the development of the shale has created an ethane advantage which is the primary feedstock for making ethylene and so that gives the producers a very low-cost position to export.”
That would represent a big change from the past, Stekla said.
“Historically when you build a plant here in the U.S. it would be 80 to 90 percent targeted for the domestic market and you would try to export a little bit of incremental excess production and try not to lose too much money on it,” he explained. “But because of our mature market for these new products, the primary target market will be exports. We will see a very large increase in the export of ethylene-based petrochemicals like polyethylene plastics, PVC, ethylene glycol, and products like that.”
Natural gas is either “wet” or “dry.” Dry gas is almost all methane, while wet gas has greater amounts of heavier molecules, such as ethane, propane, and butane, which have higher heat contents and are removed from natural gas.
Stekla said ethane is generally the only chemical feedstock that is not globally traded, because it is generally too expensive to ship, although it is moved by pipeline and new pipelines are being constructed to move ethane within the United States.
However, the chemical company Ineos announced earlier this year that it had signed a 15-year deal to import ethane from Marcus Hook, Pa., and for use as a feedstock in its European plants.
But Stekla says generally, instead of being exported, ethane and many other “natural gas liquids,” such as propane and butane, will likely be used to manufacture other chemicals and plastics, he said.
Some of these chemicals will also be shipped in tankers or parcel tankers, while others will be made into products such as plastic pellets that can be shipped in dry containers
In a speech reported by the trade magazine Chemical Week, Andrew Liveris, chief executive officer of Dow Chemical, said while natural gas can be liquefied and sold at a profit, “if we turn it into high-value products, we can export those at much higher profit, one that is felt throughout the economy.
“We are all for exporting natural gas—we just want to see it exported in solid form instead of liquid form,” he said.
“Over the last year, a majority of the major chemical refining and manufacturing companies in the U.S. have either begun expanding existing ethylene production capacity or have begun construction on new facilities,” said Ephraim Rabin, chief executive officer for Parchem Fine and Specialty Chemicals. He said 10 of the largest chemical refining and manufacturing companies have announced expansion of current ethane crackers or construction of new facilities over the last few years at a cost of about $12 to $14 billion.
In addition to increased natural gas production, he said “low-cost pipelines for production, good worker productivity, and strategic shipping locations will again allow the United States to be a manufacturing powerhouse.”
Last year the ACC said the United States had a $3.7 billion trade deficit in chemicals because of a $47.2 billion trade deficit in pharmaceuticals — the balance of trade in other chemicals is actually a positive $43.5 billion.
PwC said “armed with the lower priced shale gas economics, the United States could find itself among the low-cost thylene and derivatives producers. Over time, one impact could be a favorable shift in the U.S. balance of trade as ethylene capacity comes on line.”
Dow Chemical, BASF, Total Petrochemical, Occidental Chemical, Shell, and Mexichem have all announced new facilities and Ineos, Formosa Plastics, Westlake Chemical Corp., and Nova Chemicals Corp. are expanding ethylene capacity at existing locations, Rabin noted.
“The United States should become the dominate leader in the ethylene market in the next five years,” Rabin predicted.
And there are other trends that serve well for a healthy chemical industry. “As the economic recovery continues, governments and banks will ease lending standards for businesses looking to expand. In turn, the unemployment rate will drop, which will provide a more stable, motivated, and loyal work force for the industry,” Rabin said.
“Migration of populations to cities and urbanization and consumer and food product consumption will increase due to the higher standards of living and increased consumer needs,” he added.
The consulting firm ICIS noted per capita chemical sales are just $65 in India and $310 in China, compared with $2,200 in the United States.
Beverly Altimore is executive director of U.S. Shippers Association, which has eight chemical companies among its 10 members, including FMC, Air Products, Solvay, Rhodia, LyondellBassell, and Sekisui. These firms collectively use the association to arrange shipments of about 50,000 TEUs of exports and about 10,000 TEUs in imports and cross-trade.
Altimore said the outlook for U.S. chemical exports is bright, because “technology is the forte of the United States.” Many chemicals are key ingredients to enhancing products and many can lead to improvements in health and agriculture, she said.
In addition, she noted chemical producers are constantly seeking new markets around the world.
Stekla said increased gas production will result in increased production of basic chemicals such as methanol and fertilizers.
Methanex, for example, announced earlier this year it will relocate an idle facility in Chile to Geismar, La., which will have annual production of 1 million tons and is expected to be operational by the end of 2014. Lyondell Basell is restarting a methanol plant in Channelville, Texas.
“There are plants for making fertilizer from ammonia that have been shut down for a decade that are opening up and being restarted,” Stekla said.
Kathy Mathers, spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute, said because of increased gas production imports of nitrogen fertilizer from offshore suppliers may decline significantly.
The United States exported about 4.5 million tons of diammonium phosphate and 2.6 million tons monammonium phosphate in 2010, which require both nitrogen and phosphate to produce, but Mathers said exports are constrained by the amount of phosphate that can be mined, so increased gas production is not likely to spark a big surge in exports.
She said increased production and lower cost of gas may make U.S. firms better able to compete on the world market, since natural gas is 70 to 90 percent of the cost of producing nitrogen fertilizer.
Robert Duncan, vice president of commercial operations at freight forwarder Agility in Houston, said increased production of gas from formations, such as the Eagle Ford Shale, “has renewed production potential here in the states and it’s indicative of all the investment that’s going on.”
He pointed to companies such as Lyondellbasell and Chevron Phillips that are building new facilities in the U.S. Gulf.
In April, Chevron Phillips said it would build two new polyethylene facilities, each with an annual capacity of 500,000 metric tons.
“By probably 2017-2018, you will see U.S. exports from the Gulf — I’ve heard a couple of carriers say — to at least triple in volume,” he said.
“I think the base production will be polymers,” but he said “you are going to be seeing a broad spectrum” of products.
Betsy Arnone, a spokeswoman for chemical giant BASF, said “shale gas is a game-changing reality in North America.” It contributes to about 35 percent of the current U.S. dry gas production.
“This increase of natural gas production in North America has led to a significant reduction of regional natural gas prices from a peak of $8.99 per million BTU in 2008 to the current prices lower than $3.50 per million BTU. This is a reduction of up to 80 percent since 2008,” she said.
Those low prices provide cheap energy to run BASF plants, and the gas is an important raw material, Arnone said.
As an example of what this means to BASF, she highlighted the company’s acetylene “value chain” in Geismar, leading to butanediol (BDO), tetrahydrofuran (THF) and related derivatives.
Arnone said a plant for manufacturing formic acid in Geismar will benefit from low natural gas prices, and “a cracker in Port Arthur, Texas, has been modified to use more natural gas liquids as feedstock to improve margins.”
“The abundance of natural gas will not only affect basic chemicals, but will also impact downstream chemical derivative markets. By lowering the feedstock prices of basic chemicals, downstream chemical manufacturers will reap the benefits of lower manufacturing costs,” Rabin said.
Lower manufacturing costs can reduce the prices of those chemicals or potentially increase profit margins, creating a window for new U.S. manufacturing companies to enter markets or provide “an advantage for U.S. companies to compete against imported chemical products from low-labor markets such as China and India,” he said.