Before fracking became a household word and US natural gas production was skyrocketing, most of what people knew about natural gas was its smell.
That funky, nose-wrinkling smell, so often described as a rotten egg smell, is distinctive but isn’t natural to gas, as most who keep up with energy markets know. The smell is from odorants, often chemical compounds called mercaptans, that is added to naturally odorless gas for safety.
When I started digging into other topics like sand and water usage for gas production, I started to wonder: Is the use of mercaptans also changing now that gas is becoming such a big part of the American energy landscape?
I sent over a host of questions to Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, which produces a line of mercaptans called Scentinel Gas Odorants (tell me that pun isn’t brilliant). A team of experts got back to me with some answers, including the fact that the full impact of the shale gas boom on the odorants business has yet to be determined.
Here’s some background, courtesy of Chevron Phillips Chemical: mercaptans are required (by state and federal regulations) to be added to the gas stream near points of consumption as well as in pipelines that are near areas with certain population density requirements, per Department of Transportation regulations.
Mercaptans are also incredibly effective warning agents that gas is present, as evidenced by the Great European Stink of January 2013. Even a small drop of mercaptan is detectable over a large area, and Chevron Phillips Chemical transports its odorants in bulk and small package quantities via a trucking fleet driven by specialized delivery technicians to cut down the risk of even a small emission.
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Not all gas is odorized, though; large industrial users served by transmission lines away from everyday consumers might not be required to use odorized gas.
So: more gas would lead to more mercaptan demand, right? Perhaps. The experts at Chevron Phillips Chemical pointed out that governmental regulations and safety considerations dictate how much odorant is necessary in a gas stream and where. Additionally, odorized natural gas–like that which comes into a person’s home for heating–is consumed most when the weather is cold, so warm winters can dampen the consumption of gas (and odorants).
Natural gas demand is growing in other parts of the world, though, such as China, and the experts who fielded my questions said odorant demand in Asia is expected to grow over the next several years as a result of more gas demand.
I got in touch with CenterPoint Energy, which has a gas distribution business that served 3.2 million customers in six states. The primary component in gas odorant used by CenterPoint Energy is tertiary butyl mercaptan, said Winston Meyer, gas measurement manager for the company. He said that while usage per customer is declining due to increased efficiency, overall mercaptan usage is up due to year over year growth.
As for mercaptan prices, Meyer said they increased in the mid-2000s when one of the few worldwide producers of odorant mercaptans stopped production, but then stabilized as supply caught up with demand.
It looks like gas production will continue to set a blazing pace in the US, and the trend is set to spread worldwide as more countries eye it as a growing energy source. It’s hard to sniff out exactly what’s happening to the mercaptan market right now, but like so much in today’s energy industry, it could be changing soon.