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Thoughts on the EIA’s March 2013 Short-Term Energy Outlook

Every month the U.S. EIA (Energy Information Administration) releases their Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO).  The March edition of the STEO report was released on March 12th with this highlight specifically called out:

Total U.S. liquid fuels consumption fell from 20.8 million barrels/day (bbl/d) in 2005 to 18.6 million bbl/d in 2012. EIA expects total consumption to rise slightly over the next two years to an average of 18.7 million bbl/d in 2014, driven by increases in distillate fuel and liquefied petroleum gas consumption, with little change in gasoline and jet fuel consumption.

The propane component of that increase is estimated to be about 20,000 bbl/d.  As of March 1st this year, propane demand is already up 329,000 bbl/d, an additional 20,000 bbl/d represents 6% more demand growth.  So where is this additional demand coming from and how does it affect pricing and supply?

First supply – we’ve detailed much of the growth in new propane sources previously, but the summary is that about 50% or so now comes from natural gas versus oil, specifically from “wet” shale basins.  That is a good thing for a number of reasons including that propane becomes more of a domestic fuel rather than relying on imported oil in terms of energy security but also for price.  As anyone who has to fill up the tank of their car knows, oil prices are volatile, seemingly rising and falling on a whim.  So by having more propane come from natural gas instead of oil, some of that volatility that could lead to shocks in propane prices is removed.  So ideally propane prices should be more stable, but it’s not just the inputs that drive propane prices.

As the EIA noted, demand for propane is higher, however the reason for this isn’t home or commercial heating.  Rather, demand has increased mostly for its uses as a petrochemical feedstock.  Propane in these cases is turned into industrial chemicals, plastic products, and synthetic rubber.  Petrochemical producers that can switch to propane from other petro-feedstocks (oil, natural gas, etc.) also see the lack of volatility in pricing as a very good thing.  For them consistent pricing, not necessarily wild swings between being the lowest then higher priced, helps to manage their processes within budget.  And with this demand not forecast to let up, prices will mostly likely slowly, slightly increase or even stay stable, but we definitely do not expect decreases.

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