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Today in Energy

May 21, 2021

U.S. ethane production to grow, along with expanding domestic consumption and exports

U.S. quarterly ethane production, consumption, and exports
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2021

U.S. production of ethane, a hydrocarbon gas liquid (HGL) produced primarily in natural gas processing plants, has grown rapidly since 2013. Production has nearly doubled from 0.95 million barrels per day (b/d) in the first quarter of 2013 to 1.85 million b/d in the first quarter of 2021. In our Short-Term Energy Outlook, we forecast ethane production to continue to grow in response to a growing U.S. petrochemical industry and rising ethane exports to petrochemical plants around the world, reaching 2.6 million b/d by the fourth quarter of 2022.

U.S. demand for ethane has been growing steadily as a result of capacity expansions of ethylene crackers in the petrochemical industry, which use ethane as a feedstock. Ethylene is a basic chemical used to produce plastics and resins. We estimate that the U.S. petrochemical industry expanded its capacity to produce ethylene from almost 27 million metric tons per year (mt/y) in the first quarter of 2013 (when the first capacity additions to ethylene crackers in over a decade came online) to almost 40 million mt/y in 2020. This growth in ethylene capacity caused domestic demand for ethane as a feedstock to grow from 960,000 b/d in the first quarter of 2013 to 1.83 million b/d in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Ethane consumption declined in the first quarter of 2021 (dropping to 1.51 million b/d) because of a mid-February winter storm that shuttered most petrochemical crackers along the Gulf Coast. However, by the second quarter of 2022, we expect three new crackers—Baystar and Gulf Coast Growth Ventures in Texas and Shell Chemical Appalachia in Pennsylvania—will increase U.S. capacity to produce ethylene by another 11%, to 43.5 million mt/y. We expect these additions to ethylene capacity will cause U.S. ethane demand for feedstock to grow to 2.1 million b/d by the fourth quarter of 2022 from 1.5 million b/d in the first quarter of 2021.

U.S. petrochemical cracker plants
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on corporate filings and trade press

We expect international demand for U.S. ethane exports to also grow as more petrochemical crackers around the world are completed. U.S. exports of ethane began in 2014, when the first export pipelines were completed, shipping ethane to petrochemical plants in Canada. Since then, more export capacity had been added, including three marine export terminals that ship cryogenically cooled ethane overseas in specially built tankers. We expect ethane exports to grow more than 50%, from 300,000 b/d in the first quarter of 2021 to 460,000 b/d in the fourth quarter of 2022. We expect U.S. exports to China to grow the fastest once two large petrochemical crackers in China reach full capacity in early 2022.

Principal contributor: Warren Wilczewski