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Today in Energy

January 23, 2014

Midwest propane markets tighten further on cold weather

graph of propane spot prices, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Thomson Reuters
Note: PADD denotes Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts; HGL refers to hydrocarbon gas liquids.

Republished March 28, 2014, 3:10 a.m., to correct the text.

With the onset of severely cold weather seen over the past weeks, propane supplies in the Midwest are extremely tight. The Midwest spot price of propane at Conway, Kansas, has spiked far above the Gulf Coast spot price at Mont Belvieu, Texas. The high propane prices in the Midwest are the result of both increased demand for crop drying in November and increased demand for space heating in the current cold weather.

In the Midwest, propane is used for both drying agricultural crops and heating homes and businesses. For corn to be stored, it first needs to be dried, using large-scale heaters that often use propane for fuel. A late-2013 corn harvest, along with cold, wet weather, resulted in strong demand for propane at distribution terminals in the upper Midwest. For the week ending November 1, 2013, Midwest propane inventories dropped more than 2 million barrels, the largest single-week stock draw in any November since 1993. This demand prompted a strong upward price response, and propane at Conway moved to a 3-cent-per-gallon (gal) premium over Mont Belvieu during the first week of November, the first such premium in almost three years.

map of , as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Thomson Reuters
Note: PADD denotes Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts; HGL refers to hydrocarbon gas liquids.

After the harvest, logistical problems prevented the region from fully replenishing inventories before the onset of winter. The upper Midwest is supplied with propane by pipelines (Mid-American and ONEOK) flowing north from Conway (home to 7% of the nation's propane storage), the Cochin Pipeline coming south from Canada, and from rail deliveries. The Cochin Pipeline, which delivers ethane and propane from Canada to the upper Midwest, was out of service for maintenance from late November to December 20 and unavailable to deliver supplies. Rail transportation disruptions, both due to weather and other factors, curtailed deliveries from Mont Belvieu and Conway, as well as from Canada.

The most recent cold weather increased space-heating demand at a time when markets were already tight. As demand outpaced supply, inventories dropped further, by 1.5 million barrels and 1.2 million barrels for the weeks ending December 6 and January 3, respectively. Since the week ending October 11, Midwest propane inventory levels have dropped by 12.8 million barrels, compared with a drop of 7.3 million barrels for the previous five-year average for that period. By January 21, prices at Conway had vaulted to a 95-cent/gal premium to Mont Belvieu.

Strong demand surges, low inventories, and supply challenges have led several Midwest states to implement emergency measures to provide propane to heating customers, including suspensions of limitations on hours of service for propane-delivery truck drivers.

From early 2010 until November 2013, propane prices at Mont Belvieu, the nation's largest propane storage and market hub, have been higher than at Conway by as much as 30 cents/gal, prompting propane supplies to flow south on newly expanded southbound pipelines. High demand from the local petrochemicals industry and access to the global propane market via expanded HGL export capacity supported higher Mont Belvieu prices and encouraged propane from the Rockies (PADD 4) and elsewhere in the Midwest to flow south.

Principal contributor: T. Mason Hamilton