Surge of industrial projects to lift U.S. gas demand

HOUSTON – A wave of petrochemicals investments and other U.S. industrial projects will likely boost industrial gas demand for natural gas by 19 percent to 31 percent through the end of the decade, a new study shows.

After shale gas flooded U.S. markets, chemical makers and other firms planned enough gas-intensive industrial projects – now under construction or obtaining permits – to boost daily industrial gas demand from 19.6 to 23.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day in 2020, according to the University of Texas’ Center for Energy Economics.

All told, that’s an $83 billion venture. If all 144 proposed industrial projects are built, it’ll lift demand to 26 billion cubic feet per day over the next six years – a $121 billion round of investments.

Both cases are higher than estimates by the Energy Information Administration, but the group says it collects industry data using a different approach than the government analytics agency.

Makers of plastics, paints, chemicals, electronics and many consumer goods have jumped on the surge in U.S. shale gas supplies, especially after prices fell sharply in 2012 when markets were overrun with sellers.

The Center for Energy Economics said there are 14 new ethylene crackers projects planned – five new plants, and nine expansions – worth a combined $26 billion in investments through 2020.

Those plants, including Exxon Mobil Chemical Corp.’s ethane cracker now under construction in the Houston area, will turn abundant, cheap shale gas into resin pellets that will become the building blocks for plastic products like food packaging, as developing markets surge overseas.

Combined, those 14 facilities will add 9.3 million tons per year to the U.S. ethane cracking capacity.

The study showed six planned methanol plants, like Dutch fertilizer company OCI N.V.’s proposed facility in Beaumont, will cost a combined $3.5 billion and boost the nation’s capacity to produce a key component of fertilizer, paint and electronics by 5.9 million tons per year.

Another $14 billion will be needed to build 16 planned ammonia plants over the next six years. Those facilities, including a Freeport, Texas project jointly owned by chemical makers BASF and Yara, make plastics building blocks and are expected to add 13.6 million tons per year of U.S. capacity.

And five planned gas-to-liquids facilities, like Sasol’s massive project in Lake Charles, Louisiana, would cost a combined $14.7 billion. Those projects would boost U.S. capacity to make diesel and jet fuel by 103,300 barrels per day, according to the Center for Energy Economics.

In addition to the methanol, ammonia, ethane and gas-to-liquids projects that are already underway, companies have proposed 19 similar that could cost $25.4 billion, the study showed.