Shale boom leads Enterprise to add NGL capacity

Enterprise Products Partners has launched operation of a fifth natural gas liquids fractionator at a Houston-area complex and will start a sixth in early 2013, in response to surging supply and demand for shale gas, the company announced Tuesday.

The new fractionators each add 75,000 barrels per day of natural gas processing capacity to Enterprise Products’ complex in Mont Belvieu, and will bring the total complex capacity to 450,000 barrels per day.

Fractionators separate various gases, including ethane, propane and butane, found in the mixture of natural gas liquids (NGLs) extracted from shale rock and other formations. The rapid addition of capacity is a response to growing demand for ethane from Gulf Coast petrochemical companies, said A.J. Teague, Enterprise executive vice president and chief operating officer. The domestic shale boom has put a glut of natural gas into the market, significantly reducing its price compared to imported crude oil and making it a more attractive feedstock for petrochemicals.

“Rising domestic NGL production from the shale plays has led to a cost advantage for the U.S. petrochemical industry favoring domestic NGLs over imported crude oil-based derivatives,” Teague said in a written statement. “The U.S. petrochemical industry has responded by increasing its demand for NGLs, particularly ethane, which reached up to one million barrels per day during the third quarter of this year.”

Enterprise estimates that ethane demand could rise by as much as 135,000 barrels per day due to the expansion of some petrochemical facilities and conversion of others from using oil-based feedstocks to natural gas-based feedstocks. Construction of new ethylene crackers could add another 330,000 barrels per day of ethane demand, the company added.

The new capacity at Mont Belvieu will accommodate increasing volumes of NGLs from the Eagle Ford shale as well as from the Rocky Mountain region. Currently, the excess liquids are being processed in Louisiana, the company said.