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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 (HGLs) than it uses on an annual basis. However, sometimes imports of HGLs are necessary to supply high, seasonal demand and to supply some regions of the country that are not supplied sufficiently by domestic sources. Certain HGLs, such as propylene, are also imported because U.S. production is insufficient to satisfy total petrochemical demand. In 2019, HGL imports of 207,000 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 2019
  • propane64%
  • normal butane19%
  • propylene8%
  • isobutane6%
  • normal butylene2%

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In 2019, 96% of total 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.

Exports of hydrocarbon gas liquids have increased substantially since 2007

U.S. exports of HGLs increased from about 70,000 b/d in 2007 to 1.8 million b/d in 2019, and equal to 22% of total U.S. crude oil and petroleum product exports and 33% of petroleum product exports (excluding 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 HGLs when processed in natural gas processing plants.

  • The approximate shares of U.S. HGL exports by type of HGLs in 2019
  • propane60%
  • ethane15%
  • normal butane15%
  • natural gasoline (pentanes plus)9%

Isobutane accounted for less than 1% of HGL exports in 2019, of which 75% went to Mexico. Nearly all natural gasoline exports went to Canada, where natural gasoline is used to dilute Canadian heavy crude oil to reduce its viscosity and enable the transport of the crude oil in pipelines.

U.S. hydrocarbon gas liquids exports in 2019
Propane Ethane Normal butane Natural gasoline
Total annual exports (million barrels/day) 1.10 0.28 0.28 0.17
Number of destination countries 70 43 63 61
Top destinations and share of total Japan, 34%
Mexico, 13%
South Korea, 8%
Netherlands, 5%
Brazil, 4%
Canada, 34%
India, 30%
United Kingdom, 13%
Norway, 11%
China, 4%
Japan, 16%
South Korea, 12%
Morocco, 11%
Indonesia, 11%
Egypt, 5%
Canada, 99%
Mexico, <1%
Netherlands, <1%
France, <1%
Brazil, <1%

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did youknow

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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 the crude oil will flow easier in pipelines and at rail terminals.

Last updated: September 21, 2020