Wall Street Journal
Shale's Bounty Goes Beyond Oil and Gas

Monday, December 19, 2011

The U.S. shale-oil and natural-gas boom has cracked open another lucrative market—gas liquids used to make plastics.

The same drilling technologies that have unlocked vast amounts of crude and natural gas from previously unproductive shale formations across the U.S. also are reaping large stores of ethane, propane and butane, known as natural-gas liquids.

This growing bounty has resuscitated the U.S. petrochemical industry, which just a few years ago was being strangled by the high costs of the raw materials.

Processing ethane into chemicals is 50% cheaper than using crude oil-derived naptha and its availability has made U.S. petrochemical companies the envy of overseas competitors. It also brings the prospect of lower prices for auto parts, Styrofoam and other products.

A gas processing facility operated by Enterprise Products Partners stands in Yscloskey, La. The company is spending $7 billion on oil- and gas-producing shale formations.

"Now there's tremendous growth in natural-gas liquids, with more growth seen on the horizon," said Adam Bedard, senior director at analysis firm Bentek Energy.

The boom has turned into a potential profit center for oil-and-gas producers, as well as for the pipeline companies that transport the fuel. Demand for ethane grew to about 933,000 barrels a day during the first half of 2011, up from 812,000 barrels a day in 2009, according to Bentek Energy. But like the other fuels extracted from remote shale deposits, the biggest problem is how to get it to facilities that can process it.

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