Ethane–a natural gas liquid (NGL)–is bountiful in parts of the Marcellus and Utica Shale. So bountiful, it’s causing problems. Until very recently, ethane was considered a waste product. You either had to burn it (increasingly hard to do because of regulations), or blend it with methane. It has been a cost center when in fact ethane is normally a profit center–something that makes drillers money. But you can only make money on it if you can get it to market.
Enter several ethane-specific, and coming soon, NGL pipelines that can carry ethane (and other NGLs) to the Gulf Coast, Canada or Philadelphia for processing and sale. The problem is, if you don’t have a long-term contract on one of those pipelines, you’re hosed. Your competitors are making money on ethane while you’re still spending money on it. That, in a nutshell, is why two regional ethane cracker plants are so desperately needed (Shell’s cracker plant in Beaver County, PA and Odebrecht’s cracker in Parkersburg, WV). The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review took an in-depth look at “the ethane issue” last Friday. It’s a good article providing us with insights into the complex issue of what drillers can/should/are doing with ethane: