INSIGHT: A new pitch in North American methanol

19 November 2012 15:00  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)--A new category has surfaced in North American methanol, that of an old idea which never quite arrived but is being pitched again. This is a project that never made it off the drawing board to commissioning, like a binder that is being dusted off once more.

A prime example occurred in late October with the announcement by US-based Lake Charles Clean Energy (LCCE) that it has lined up long-term contracts for a petroleum-coke-to-methanol project in Louisiana. Making methanol from petcoke is the idea being dusted off. The parent company of LCCE, Leucadia National, has three such projects in the works.

Petcoke is the sludgy, hydrocarbon residue left after crude oil has been cracked, and extracting methanol and other chemicals is done through gasification. Gasification projects for making other chemicals were more popular before the price of US natural gas plunged from the development of shale gas reserves.

US-based Eastman Chemical announced a gasification project in 2007 to be built in Beaumont, Texas, but abandoned it two years later, citing high capital costs, uncertain US regulations and the likely persistence of a smaller spread between prices for natural gas and oil and petroleum coke.

LCCE said its proposed $2.5bn ($1.95bn) plant in Lake Charles would be the first ever methanol-to-petcoke plant in the US, and the cost says a lot about the economics of making petcoke from methanol. The company says it has already covered about 75% of the plant construction cost with state and federal financing, with the largest portion from $1.5bn in tax-exempt bonds from the Louisiana State Bond Commission.

Add to that another $261m in grants from the US Department of Energy, and $128m in federal investment tax credits. That still leaves LCCE about $500m short, though. The company says it is still working on third-party financing and will not make a final decision until next year.

That project’s cost is a few multiples of what producers are spending in North America on restart plant projects. Methanex spent approximately $60m restarting Medicine Hat, OCI spent a similar amount restarting a plant in Beaumont Texas, and LyondellBasell plans on spending $150m to restart a unit near Houston.

The most expensive restart project is Methanex’s plan to ship one of its idle plants in Chile to Louisiana for $550m, and the company said recently that it may be able to ship another one - if and when that decision is made - for $450m. Celanese’s new plant in Clear Lake is the only start-from-scratch project that has been announced and will cost an estimated $500m-$1bn. The company has said it is looking for a partner to share the expense.

So Methanex could pack two of its 1m tonne/year plants in Chile, put them in crates, load them on ships and transport them from the tip of South America to the Gulf of Mexico for only 40% of the cost of building the first-ever petcoke-to-methanol plant in the US.

The reason why it would be the first is that, while the price of methanol may follow crude over the long run, producers prefer natural gas as a major feedstock because of its cost. Even when US natural gas prices shot up to $15/MMBtu in 2005, producers decided to close their US plants and move to where there was cheaper gas, in Trinidad and Venezuela and Africa, rather than shift to making methanol from oil.

Now that US natural gas is cheap again - or at least relatively cheap, below $4/MMBtu - producers are restarting some of those mothballed plants that were closed seven or eight years ago.

Methanol industry veterans cited similar gasification projects in California and Texas that failed because the favourable economics were not there. One source remembered the Lake Charles project as dating back almost a decade. He said he could not see how gasified coke could compete with natural gas, given the capital cost to gasify and the abundance of reasonably priced natural gas. Said another source: “It is a project for the future, the distant future.”

Industry veteran Deo Van Wijk, who put the deal together to restart the Eastman plant in Beaumont, said making methanol is technically feasible, but at a cost. “To me it looks like trying it the hard way versus natural gas or shale gas, both of which are abundantly available and the plant would be substantially cheaper,” Van Wijk said.

Another gasification project promoted by LCCE’s parent, Leucadia National, met firm political resistance earlier this year. The company wanted to build a coal and petcoke project on the southeast side of Chicago, but Illinois Governor Pat Quinn vetoed the project in August for financial reasons. Quinn also raised the spectre of cheaper shale gas when he explained his veto of a project that had been percolating for decades.

“Current natural gas prices are at historic lows, and many indicators suggest prices will remain low for years to come,” Quinn said. “These new facts require further scrutiny, and a revisiting of the economics of this 30-year project.” 

One can see the economic conflict in Leucadia’s annual letter to shareholders, which also touched on the economics of natural gas posing a threat to the company’s petcoke projects, not just in Louisiana but also in Mississippi, Indiana and Illinois.

“Our ability to get these projects to the starting line is being slowed by the current low price of natural gas,” says the Leucadia letter, written in the easy-to-read style of Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. The Leucadia letter even praises a Leucadia executive steering the projects “despite the challenges of the shale revolution.”

Whatever the chances of Leucadia’s Louisiana project, the company owns so many different businesses that making methanol from petcoke seems to be just one among many on its idea list. Last week, Leucadia bought the investment banking firm Jefferies Group for $2.8bn in stock, almost as much it will cost to build a petcoke plant in Louisiana. New stories on the deal called Leucadia a “baby Berkshire,” because of its similarity to the company operated by Buffett.

($1 = €0.78)

By: Lane Kelley
+1 713 525 2653

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