Petrochemicals, Front And Center
Mar28

Petrochemicals, Front And Center

I took my usual seat at IHS’s World Petrochemical Conference at the Hilton Americas in downtown Houston today, front and center, as I have for 12 previous annual conferences run by CMAI. “The world is right when you’re sitting in the front row,” Mark Eramo, vice president of chemical industry research and analysis, said as he passed. He has given the big ethylene talk each year that I have attended the conference. IHS purchased CMAI since the last conference. I was worried that IHS might mess with a good thing. The conferences have been a bigger and bigger draw year after year. IHS made some changes, but they were for the better. Instead of a keynote by an august petrochemical executive, there was a panel featuring five of them. That forum gave me the impression that petrochemical executives may be exuberant about the prospects of feedstocks from shale, but they are also realistic. Since the last conference, five companies—ChevronPhillips Chemical, Dow Chemical, Shell Chemicals, Sasol, and Formosa have announced new U.S. ethylene crackers. “Not all crackers that have been announced may be built, certainly not in the announced timeframe,” noted Ben van Beurden of Shell Chemicals. Jim Gallogly, CEO of LyondellBasell, made a similar point. “It’s likely you won’t see all the crackers advanced,” he said. Lyondell, for its part, is focused on expansions of existing U.S. facilities, to the tune of half a new cracker’s worth of output. Also, Gallogly mentioned that his company would be interested in a “condo” cracker, perhaps at an existing facility. As I understand the concept, this would be a cracker that would have two or more partners, each with a defined offtake. I remember Dan Smith, a Gallogly predecessor, talking about this concept about a decade ago, just when the Middle East and Asia started getting all the petrochemical investment. If I had to guess how this might play out today, I would think it would be an project involving Lyondell, a partner with access to feedstocks, and maybe a partner trying to back-integrate an ethylene derivative such as ethylene oxide, alpha olefins, or vinyl chloride monomer. Curiously, in the Q&A, van Beurden kept on getting asked why Shell announced a cracker and Gallogly kept on getting asked why LyondellBasell hasn’t announced a cracker. In fact, one attendee brought up the exact same two problems I noted with Shell project—that Shell no longer makes polyethylene and that Monaca, Pa., is relatively isolated from the rest of the petrochemical world. Van Beurden said there is as a big advantage being close to the converters—customers would enjoy quicker delivery and less working capital tied...

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Monaca, Pa!
Mar15

Monaca, Pa!

Shell Chemical has selected the Pittsburgh area town of Monaca, Pa., as the site of its new ethylene cracker complex. Actually it will be in Potter and Center Townships, which are near Monaca, Pa. (Pop. 6,286, according to Wikipedia). But that narrows it down a lot more than what Shell was previously saying: “I don’t know, Appalachia somewhere or something.” Monaca is a bit of a chemical town. It is host to a Nova complex that makes Arcel polystyrene resins for foams and expandable polystyrene. Nova calls this the Beaver Valley site. (If that name conjures an image of a valley teaming with beavers felling trees willy nilly, I know the feeling.) This doesn’t mean that the plant is a done deal. As its press release explains: “The next steps for this project include additional environmental analysis of the preferred Pennsylvania site, further engineering design studies, assessment of the local ethane supply, and continued evaluation of the economic viability of the project.” The company isn’t saying much more about the project. It will feature an ethylene cracker and downstream polyethylene and ethylene glycol plants. We already knew about that. There’s nothing new about the size or the timing. I do have a couple of thoughts about the project: 1) Isolated ethylene and derivatives complexes never work out. If the ethylene cracker goes down, how do you run the derivatives plants and where does the ethane feedstock go? If one of your derivatives complexes goes down, do you run the cracker at reduced rates? It would be nice to see another cracker complex built in the neighborhood that would be connected to the Shell site. I suspect that we’ll probably hear from another company with cracker plans in the region before long. 2) I doubt Shell will build its own polyethylene plant. It hasn’t had any skin in the polyolefins game since it sold its stake in Basell to Access Industries in 2005. I am expecting a partner of some kind on the polyethylene unit. If it does go it alone, I would think that the plant would spew out commodity grades of polyethylene. One example of such a product would be high-density polyethylene for extrusion blow molding—used to make milk jugs. Shell would need something that is relatively easy to sell. Also, the company wouldn’t want to do a lot of switching of grades at the plant because of potential problems with excess ethylene, as I mentioned above. All this aside, it is great to see such a big chemical plant being contemplated for the...

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Now There Are Three Crackers!
Jun06

Now There Are Three Crackers!

Shell Chemicals has announced plans for a world-scale ethylene cracker in Appalachia.* It intends to tap into ethane from the natural gas producing Marcellus Shale region. Chevron Phillips and Dow have already unveiled their plans to build world-scale crackers on the U.S. Gulf Coast, both in the 2017 timeframe. (World-scale crackers are a little more than 1 million metric ton per year.) Here are a few things that I wonder about Shell’s announcement: 1) Shell says its “leading option” for derivatives is polyethylene. This is a very curious statement. For one thing, Shell doesn’t have a polyethylene business. It divested that when it and BASF sold their Basell joint venture to Access Industries. Now that venture is a part of LyondellBasell. I find it hard to believe that Shell would build a polyethylene plant by itself. It is possible, but I think that a joint venture or another company to build the polyethylene plant is a more likely scenario. 2) Shell is a large producer of alpha-olefins and ethylene oxide. The Midwest, with all the detergents makers, is a large consumer of both chemicals. Yet those don’t seem to be part of the plan. 3) Bayer MaterialScience has said that it would like to host a cracker at one of its sites in West Virginia. I wonder if Shell is choosing among these locations. (I think that is highly probable.) * (Correction: I originally said West Virginia in the first sentence. Shell didn't say that. I was jumping the gun a little bit on...

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