Why a potential role for the US as oil production king needs an asterisk

The peak oil folks have been saying it for years, but now a Wall Street house is sending out a caution flag as well.

One of the arguments long made by followers of peak oil is that organizations such as the International Energy Agency count crude and natural gas liquids equally.So the world market of 89 million b/d of liquids contains mostly energy-intensive versatile hydrocarbons such as crude oil–versatile in the sense that they can be processed to make products that do everything from propelling cars to making carbon black–and a lesser amount of NGLs with a far more limited use.

So when the IEA came out with its widely covered announcement a few weeks ago that the US would be the world’s biggest oil producer in a few years, I was traveling and didn’t have immediate access to the report. But I didn’t need to see it to know that there was going to be a lot of NGLs in its calculation, and somebody would eventually point that out…somebody other than the peak oil folks.

Somebody has: the folks at Bernstein Research. The team headed by Bob Brackett last week put out a report entitled “All that is liquids is not oil, and cars can’t run on ethane.”

“We do agree that the US will likely become the world’s largest liquids producer for a short time,” the report said. “But the higher percentage of NGLs in the US’ liquids profile will almost certainly leave the US short of Saudi’s true crude oil production.”

The report continued: “On a total liquids basis, our 2015 forecasts imply near-record US liquids production vs. history; however, for crude oil it corresponds to levels last seen around 1990.”

There is the possibility of NGL substitution for some petroleum uses; the decline in naphtha input for petrochemical production is the most obvious example. But it’s limited, according to Bernstein. “(About) 70% of NGLs have zero ability to directly compete with crude oil/gasoline in the transportation sector,” the report said. “These NGLs could indirectly compete with crude via other end uses, but assuming one incremental barrel of  total liquids production directly displaces one barrel of US crude imports is a fallacy, in our view.”

 Even the replacement of ethane for naphtha in the production of ethylene has its drawbacks, as naphtha cracking produces a far broader range of byproducts that include propylene and butadiene than ethane. But with ethane at about 23 cts/gal (less than $10/b), and naphtha keyeing off $100+ Brent, ethane wins out.

But as the Bernstein report notes, as ethane elbows out naphtha in the feedstock wars, the value of those byproducts rises because their production declines, and suddenly the economics of naphtha don’t look at that bad. As a result, the study says, naphtha will always have a minimum share of the ethylene feedstocks market.

Obviously, anybody in the oil or petrochemical industry knows this. The issue is politics and the general public, according to Bernstein. “The IEA has historically used the term ‘oil’ to mean total liquids, but its assertion that the US will become the world’s largest ‘oil’ producer has very different implications vs. reality,” the report said. “Extrapolating one-for-one increases of total US liquids production to decreased US oil imports will understate future import needs.”

So pronouncements that don’t make the distinction between US crude production and US liquids production could create a public perception of US productive capacity that is not in sync with the preferred feedstocks for making fuels that power internal combustion engines.

(The percentage of US output that is liquids compared to OPEC is significant. For example, the IEA estimates total OPEC NGL production is about 6.5 million b/d, and estimates are that OPEC output is about 31 million b/d, so NGL output is a little more than 20% of OPEC crude output. By contrast, US liquids production, according to a study authored by Turner Mason & Co. and Platts subsidiary Bentek Energy, could hit 3.1 million b/d by 2016, and if US crude production by then is even 9 million b/d, it would mean that NGL output is 1/3 of US crude production. So the ratio in the US is very different than that found in OPEC as a whole.) 

We discussed this at Platts a long time ago when putting together our stylebook. Some argued that the word “oil” should always be used to describe any of those 89 million barrels the world consumes each day. The other argument was that “petroleum” is a more accurate and broader term that takes in NGLs, since NGLs aren’t really oil; that’s the basis of the Bernstein study, and became the basis for our style.

So if ethane can only displace a limited amount of oil, and there’s only so much of it that can be used in the country, what about the export option? For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist. The export of ethane is expensive and technologically complex, involving refrigeration like LNG. The Energy Information Administration last recorded ethane exports in the mid-90’s. It isn’t impossible, though, and if the arbitrage gets wide enough, animal spirits could find a way.

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  1. NancyMaria at October 31, 2013 6:13 am

    Good review.Thanks for sharing this informative article.
    bulk intermediates

  2. Clowdis at December 14, 2012 1:43 pm

    Well said! As usual….

    (actually my childhood nickname was “Asterisk”.; can’t remember why…?…?…

  3. John Busby at December 13, 2012 4:09 am

    The EIA gives figures for crude plus NGLs and crude plus lease condensate. When oil production is plotted as crude plus lease condensate it shows that global production has “plateaued”.

  4. John Kingston at December 11, 2012 7:50 pm

    Steve, it’s true that propane can power a car, and does. But I wonder how big a transportation fuel it can ever be. The fact is, it’s far more exportable than ethane, and it would then sell into an international market where the price of propane is tied more to the price of Brent and other international crudes. So I think it could only make it as a transportation fuel if the Brent/propane spread widened considerably on the international market, but the US propane/international propane differential wasn’t too wide to encourage exports. It could happen, but there are a lot of moving parts to determine if it’s worthwhile on a consistent basis.

    It’s interesting that you mention propane-powered cars in Denver. The first time I encountered them was in Calgary. Notice the link? The Rockies market, which doesn’t have a lot of NGL takeaway capacity.

  5. Steven Kopits at December 11, 2012 6:56 pm

    I welcome your asterisk, and add one of my own: If you hop into a cab in Denver, you might find it’s running on propane.

  6. Nick Grealy at December 11, 2012 6:34 pm

    Go back a few years and you find Bernstein Research talking down shale gas. It didn’t work out that way then. It won’t now


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