More LPG For Petrochemicals – Eventually!

By John Richardson

In theory there should be an additional 20-30m tonne/year of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) coming on-stream between 2008-2012, according to Petrochemical Corp of Singapore (PCS) – the Singapore Jurong Island-based cracker operator.

This could lead to 5-10m tonne/year more LPG being cracked if the pricing incentives are right, added PCS in a recent presentation.

But as the blog has discussed before, LPG has been much-tighter this year than anyone had expected as a result of the associated gas issue, delays to liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects and reduced refinery operating rates. A further factor has been the increased use of LPG for petrochemicals in Saudi Arabia.

As a result of the lingering impact of the above, it therefore seems questionable whether the PCS prediction that LPG markets will be long in 2011-12 will come true.

Firstly, as we’ve discussed on many occasions before on this blog – but it is worth re-emphasising because of its importance to global petrochemical balances – world oil demand is being forecast not to return to 2007 levels for a couple more years.

This will mean OPEC will have to manage this lower demand to attempt to prevent a price decline, resulting in Saudi Arabia’s oil-production quota being maintained at a level that will limit its propane, butane and ethane production.

LNG projects have been postponed or even cancelled due to the economic crisis. And commissioning continues to be affected by the old chestnut also harming the start-up of on schedule of new petrochemicals facilities – the shortage of qualified engineers, said a Singapore-based oil and gas consultant.

“More than 30 LNG ships are standing idle at the moment out of a global fleet 370. This is an indication of project delays and weaker-than-expected demand,” said an industry source.

Some 12m tonnes of LNG that should have been delivered to the US this year will instead to diverted to Asia because of the country’s weak economy and the rise of shale gas, said Jason Feer, Vice President and General Manager Asia Pacific for the Argus Media Group, in a speech during last week’s APPEC oil and gas conference in Singapore.

The shale gas boom, that has dramatically improved the economics of US petrochemicals producers, might in itself lead to more LPG availability.

But this is not part of the PCS estimate we gave above and outside the US, extra LPG volumes from LPG remain highly speculative as projects are at a very early stage.

Further – a global shale-gas boom could put paid to more LNG projects!

And then, of course, refinery operating rates remain under pressure due to factors including new capacity arriving just as the economic crisis occurred – and the peaking of US gasoline demand due to increased fuel efficiency and ethanol blending.

The jury is out over whether refinery margins have bottomed out with maybe only the complex, modern refiners set to prosper.

And then finally in this long list of reasons why we are not drowning in a flood of LPG, petrochemicals consumption has risen in Saudi due to more cracking of propane and butane and the start-up of several propane dehydrogenation (PDH)-to-polypropylene (PP) projects.

Saudi Aramco recently cut export allocations by 20% because of the associated gas problem and increased demand from petrochemicals, said an LPG trader.

BUT – according to the industry source we quoted above – two gas projects in the Middle East, due on-stream over the next few years, have 7-8m tonne/year of LPG of co or by-product LPG “that they don’t know what to do with”.

As PCS points out, in a world of more competitive gas-based cracker capacity and increased China petrochemicals import self-sufficiency, feedstock flexibility for the higher-cost Asian (ex-China) and European crackers will be essential to survival.

So making investments in the right separation facilities, in furnace adjustments and LPG storage could be worthwhile – especially as LPG yields a higher percentage of propylene than naphtha, and could therefore help solve a potential long-term C3s shortage.

But the key issue, as we have pointed above, is going to be timing!

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