Industry & Innovation Update

US NGL and Ethylene Industry Continues to Expand1,2

Bruce Cook, CISTAR, Research and Industry Advisor

The US nameplate ethylene capacity continues to grow, with the addition of 3 major new additions which will come fully online in 2022.  These new plants are:

  • ExxonMobil/SABIC (Gulf Coast Growth Ventures LLC) 3 - The project in Corpus Christi, TX includes a 1.8 million metric ton ethane steam cracker and the capacity to produce 1.1 million metric tons of ethylene glycol, and 1.3 million metric tons of polyethylene per year.
  • Total Energies/Borealis AG (Baystar) 4, The project includes a 1 million metric ton steam cracker In Port Arthur, TX which will feed both existing and new polyethylene units in the nearby Houston Ship Channel.
  • Shell Chemical Appalachia 5 – The project in Beaver County, PA includes cracker and polyethylene facilities with the capacity to produce 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene per year. 

U.S. Petrochemical Cracker Plants

With these three new plants, US ethylene capacity will reach a record 97 billion pounds per year.  This represents a 56% increase in US ethylene production capacity since 2014 (62 billion pounds per year)6.  These expansions are a direct result of a massive increase (see EIA Figure)2 in US NGL and specifically, ethane production from US shale resources plays. Most of the expansion has occurred in the Gulf Coast (see EIA map)2, but the Shell Pennsylvania plant is built to exploit ethane production in Marcellus which currently is shipped largely to the Gulf Coast.  Previously Marcellus ethane was either shipped to Gulf Coast or exported.

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With exception of storm-related shutdowns, the US NGL and ethylene production have largely remained strong throughout 2020/21, avoiding the large pandemic disruptions seen for petroleum and refining. US ethylene capacity operated at nearly 90% capacity in the second half of 2021.    Margins for US ethylene and polyethylene (PE) producers have remained robust throughout 2021 despite ethane feed costs increases over the year. One potential area of concern has been the steady decline in the last 6 quarters in PE exports outside of North America.  Polyethylene exports are critical to the future profitability of recent US expansions since 2017. The next couple of years continue to look bright in the US, as projected feedstock supply growth and advantaged feed prices are forecast to continue but lingering worldwide pandemic supply chain issues and international geopolitical forces make future projections uncertain. 

  1. Lippe, Oil and Gas Journal, “US Olefin Update: Pandemic, Geopolitical, Tension Pose Barriers to US Olefins Export Market”, March 7, 2022, pp 40-49.
  2. Wilczewski, EIA Today in Energy, “U.S. ethane production to grow, along with expanding domestic consumption and exports”. May 21, 2021.
  3. Rogers, Corpus Christ Caller Times -Yahoo News, “Gulf Coast Ventures Marks Successful Startup of ExxonMobil Facility Near Gregory, March 24, 2022.
  4. Dick, Beaumont Enterprise, “Baystar Cracker Starts Up in Port Arthur”, August 15, 2021.
  5. Brelsford, Oil and Gas Journal, “Shell’s Pennsylvania chemical complex readies for 2022 commissioning”, Nov. 1, 2021.
  6. Oil and Gas Journal, International Survey of Ethylene from Steam Crackers – 2014.