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Hydrocarbon gas liquids explained Imports and exports of hydrocarbon gas liquids

Imports of hydrocarbon gas liquids help meet seasonal and regional demand

The United States typically produces more hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL) than it uses on an annual basis. However, sometimes imports of HGL are necessary to supply high, seasonal demand and to supply some regions of the country that are not supplied sufficiently by domestic sources. Certain HGL, such as propylene, are also imported because U.S. production is insufficient to satisfy total petrochemical demand. In 2017, HGL imports of 196,000 barrels per day (b/d) accounted for about 9% of total U.S. imports of petroleum products (does not include crude oil).

  • The approximate shares of HGL imports by type in 2017
  • propane68%
  • propylene12%
  • normal butane8%
  • isobutane5%
  • natural gasoline (pentanes plus)4%
  • butylene4%

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In 2017, 91% of U.S. HGL imports were from Canada. Most U.S. imports of propane and butanes are received by rail from Canada into the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States. These imports are highly seasonal, with two-thirds of imports occurring in October through March. This demand cycle reflects use of propane as a heating fuel and of butanes in gasoline blending during colder months when gasoline vapor pressure requirements allow its use in higher quantities. HGL imports were about one-seventh as large as U.S. HGL exports in 2017.

Exports of hydrocarbon gas liquids have increased substantially since 2007

U.S. exports of HGL increased from about 70,000 b/d in 2007 to 1.4 million b/d in 2017. HGL exports in 2017 were equal to 22% of total U.S. exports of petroleum (excluding crude oil) and 27% of petroleum product exports (which excludes crude oil). These exports were largely driven by annual U.S. HGL production exceeding annual U.S. HGL demand. The increases in HGL production were largely the result of increases in production of wet natural gas from shale and tight oil resources, which yields a high share of HGL when processed in natural gas processing plants.

  • The approximate shares of U.S. HGL exports by type of HGL in 2017
  • propane65%
  • ethane13%
  • natural gasoline (pentanes plus)12%
  • normal butane10%

Isobutane accounted for less than 1% of HGL exports in 2017, and 75% went to Mexico. Nearly all natural gasoline exports went to Canada, where it is used to dilute Canadian heavy crude oil to reduce its viscosity and enable its transport in pipelines.

U.S. hydrocarbon gas liquids exports in 2017
Propane Ethane Natural gasoline Normal butane
Number of destination countries 43 7 2 30
Total annual exports (million barrels/day) 0.91 0.18 0.17 0.14
Top five destinations and share of total Japan, 23%
Mexico, 15%
China, 14%
South Korea, 7%
Singapore, 6%
India, 32%
Canada, 31%
United Kingdom, 18%
Norway, 15%
Brazil, 2%
Canada, 99%
Norway, 1%
China, 15%
South Korea, 14%
Japan, 11%
Canada, 9%
Morocco, 7%

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did youknow


Most of U.S. natural gasoline exports to Canada actually return to the United States in crude oil imports from Canada. Natural gasoline is added to Canada's heavy crude oil so that it will flow easier in pipelines and at rail terminals.

Last updated: December 19, 2018