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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 2021, HGL imports of 173,000 barrels per day (b/d) accounted for about 7% of total U.S. imports of petroleum products (does not include crude oil).

  • The approximate percentage shares of HGL imports by type in 2021 were:
  • propane66%
  • normal butane21%
  • propylene8%
  • isobutane3%
  • normal butylene1%

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In 2021, 98% 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 about 2.3 million b/d in 2021, and equal to 27% of total U.S. crude oil and petroleum product exports and 41% of total 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 percentage shares of U.S. HGL exports by type of HGLs in 2021 were:
  • propane57%
  • normal butane18%
  • ethane16%
  • natural gasoline (pentanes plus)9%

Isobutane accounted for less than 1% of total U.S. HGL exports in 2021, of which 90% went to Mexico, 6% to South Korea, 3% to Canada, 1% to Brazil, and less than 1% to Colombia. Nearly all (98%) 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 2021
Propane Normal butane Ethane Natural gasoline
Total annual exports (million barrels/day) 1.33 0.41 0.37 0.20
Number of destination countries 69 66 36 71
Top destinations and share of total Japan, 27%
Mexico, 12%
China, 12%
South Korea, 8%
Indonesia, 5%
Indonesia, 14%
South Korea, 12%
Morocco, 9%
Japan, 8%
Egypt, 6%
China, 28%
Canada, 23%
India, 19%
Norway, 11%
United Kingdom, 8%
Canada, 98%
Mexico, 1%
Netherlands, <1%
South Korea, <1%
India, <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 13, 2022 with the most recent data available at the time of update.