Monday, June 27, 2011

What New Ethylene Crackers Tell Us

Sometimes a news item informs us about much more than the event in question. Recent announcements of new petrochemical projects in the US fall into that category. Both Shell and Dow Chemical are planning new ethylene crackers in the US, a market in which established ethylene facilities were being shut down only a few years ago, as part of the demand destruction necessary to balance natural gas demand with shrinking US supplies. Anyone looking for further indications of the game-changing nature of shale gas need look no further than these projects. Yet they also give us intriguing hints about two other situations of great interest: global oil prices and US economic growth.

The Shell project is of particular interest, because of its location. The company is apparently planning to locate it in Appalachia, where it will depend on the byproducts of natural gas produced from the giant Marcellus shale deposit. Considering that most of the other ethylene crackers in the US are located on or near the Gulf Coast, where gas can be supplied from numerous onshore and offshore fields, that's a remarkable endorsement of the potential of the Marcellus. You just wouldn't leave such a facility dependent on one gas field if that field weren't both very large and likely to be producing for a very long time. Anyone suggesting that shale gas is a flash in the pan should look long and hard at this project, as I'm sure Shell has done.

It's also worth pausing to recall the way Shell approaches projects like this. Shell is one of the pioneers of scenario planning, and its business plans are all based on its periodic, carefully developed views of different potential futures. I wouldn't assign some notion of infallibility to this; Shell has made its share of mistakes in the last decade, too. However, it does suggest that the company's decision to invest in this project wasn't just based on a straight-line extrapolation of current conditions. Deciding to build an ethylene cracker, a facility that turns the heavier components of natural gas into one of the basic building blocks of the petrochemical and plastics industry, in such a location is a big vote of confidence. It suggests that Shell has concluded that the current uncertainties facing shale gas development are very likely be resolved without undermining shale's capacity to produce large quantities of gas at relatively low cost, and that shale developers will find ways to resolve concerns about fracking, methane emissions, and other issues both with the affected communities and with state and national regulators.

These projects also suggest at least two other things. First, as the Reuters article noted, they represent sizable wagers on the relationship between the global price of oil and the US price of natural gas. I've commented before on the extraordinary divergence between the two, with oil bouncing around the $100 per barrel mark and US natural gas selling for the energy equivalent of $25 per barrel. A company would be unlikely to make a long-term investment like this if it thought gas and oil were likely to move back into parity any time soon. Even if gas prices eventually recover to around $6 per million BTU, as suggested by current long-dated gas futures, that's still the equivalent of less than $40/bbl--an oil price we haven't seen since the worst stretch of the global recession and financial crisis in early 2009.

And that leads to the last implication I draw from this news: these investments are bets on the health of the US economy. If the economy were headed for a protracted period of slow or no growth, adding petrochemical capacity here would be too risky, rather than putting it in the Middle East, where gas is even cheaper and the growing markets in Asia are much closer. That doesn't' mean that our problems of high unemployment, high indebtedness, and gaping federal, state and local budget deficits aren't extremely challenging, but it provides at least one modestly positive sign among the many ominous ones that are routinely amplified by the basic nature of the news media business.

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