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Hydrocarbon gas liquids explained Transporting and storing hydrocarbon gas liquids

Hydrocarbon gas liquids are transported by various means

Hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL) that are extracted from natural gas or that are produced at petroleum refineries may be transported as liquids in mixtures of HGL or as separate HGL purity products in pipelines, rail cars, trucks, ships, and barges.

HGL are transported in five main forms:

  • Y-grade (raw, unseparated HGL)
  • E-P mix (most frequently 80% ethane and 20% propane)
  • P/P mix (refinery-grade propane-propylene mixture)
  • LPG (mixture of liquefied propane, normal butane, and isobutane)
  • Purity products (separate, distinct products; mostly ethane, propane, and normal butane)

Pipelines carry hydrocarbon gas liquids from where they are produced to where they are stored

Most of the HGL produced in the United States are transported in pipelines from where they are produced to places where they are used or to places where they are stored for distribution.

A map showing U.S. hydrocarbon gas liquids pipelines in the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico as of April 2018

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Most of HGL transported by pipeline is Y-grade quality and is transported to fractionation plants. Purity ethane and E-P mix is transported by pipelines from fractionation plants to ethylene crackers, where they are used to produce ethylene and other olefins. P/P mix is often transported by dedicated pipelines on the Gulf Coast, or by rail in other regions, from refineries to propylene splitters that separate refinery-grade propylene (a propylene mix containing impurities) into higher quality, polymer-grade or chemical-grade propylene, which is then sold to petrochemical plants. Liquefied petroleum gases (LPG)1 (propane, normal butane, and isobutane) are transported by dedicated high vapor pressure (HVP) pipelines or in batches as purity products in pipelines that transport other kinds of petroleum products.

Railroads and trucks transport HGL to consumers

Many regions in the United States (such as the West, New England, and Florida) are not served by HGL pipelines. In these areas, railroads often transport large volumes of HGL to wholesale and bulk purchasers in pressurized railroad tankcars. Railroads and trucks are also used to transport HGL to consumers. The primary HGL product delivered to consumers is consumer-grade propane, which is transported by truck in pressurized tanks to homes, farms, and businesses where it can be used as engine fuel, for crop drying, for space heating and water heating, and for cooking, among other applications.

Special ships are used to transport HGL to and from the United States

Special ships are used to transport HGL (usually LPG) to and from shipping ports in the United States. The ships, called gas tankers, vary in size and vary by the method used to keep the HGL in liquid form. The HGL may be pressurized, refrigerated, or both. Over short distances, propane and normal butane are also moved by barge along intercoastal waterways and navigable rivers.

Image of a propane delivery truck

A propane delivery truck

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

Image of an ocean-going tanker ship transporting liquefied petroleum gas

An ocean-going tanker ship transporting liquefied petroleum gas

Source: Dorian LPG Ltd. (copyrighted)

HGL are stored in a variety of ways

Storage of HGL is necessary because HGL may be produced in volumes that exceed the capacity of the different modes of transportation used to carry the HGL to consumers. Production may also not match HGL seasonal requirements. For example, production of propane is relatively consistent throughout the year, but demand for propane is usually lower in the summer and higher in the fall and winter. Propane is stored when demand is low, and it is withdrawn from storage when demand is high.

Image of operating U.S. underground and aboveground wholesale HGL storage facilities, 2014

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Image of propane storage tanks of various sizes

Propane storage tanks of various sizes

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

Large volumes of HGL are primarily stored as a pressurized liquid in underground caverns. Most of the caverns are in salt formations, but some propane storage caverns are mined out of shale, granite, or limestone rock. In regions where geology is not well suited for underground caverns, large aboveground tanks may be used. Aboveground tanks are the primary storage method for propane and butanes in New England.

Once HGL are transported close to consumers, they are stored in pressurized (or sometimes refrigerated) tanks located above or below ground. LPG is stored and distributed in many different sizes of tanks, from the small canisters used for torches and camping stoves to 90,000-gallon bullet-shaped tanks used at industrial facilities.

1Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is a generic industry term that is used to refer to propane, butanes, or mixtures of those HGL. However, these products are rarely distributed as mixtures. Virtually all HGL product distributed in the U.S. consumer market with the LPG label is HD-5 propane. Propane constitutes most of U.S. marine HGL/LPG imports and exports.

Last updated: December 19, 2018