Senators Encouraging Ethane Storage

Just across the Ohio River from the Blue Racer Midstream Natrium natural gas processing plant, contractors continue working to build the caverns required for storing up to 168 million gallons of ethane and other natural gas liquids more than one mile underground.

Even as the PTT Global Chemical ethane cracker at Dilles Bottom remains uncertain, Marcellus and Utica shale drillers continue producing significant quantities of the material, with much of this being shipped for cracking in other regions via interstate pipelines. Although Royal Dutch Shell is building a giant cracker complex at Monaca, Pa., U.S. senators representing Ohio and West Virginia believe their states should realize as much economic benefit as possible from the ethane flows.

This week, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced legislation they believe will help keep Appalachian ethane in the region, which would encourage construction of more petrochemical plants such as crackers.

“The Appalachian Ethane Storage Hub Study Act will help us figure out the best way to utilize the region’s resources and improve our infrastructure. Not only will this legislation inform future projects and policies, but it will also help attract private dollars to ensure Appalachia remains an important player in America’s energy and manufacturing strategy,” Capito said.

The legislation, if enacted, would direct the U.S. departments of Energy and Commerce to study the impact of establishing a “subterranean ethane storage and distribution hub” for the Marcellus, Utica and Rogersville shale region. This would call for analyzing potential locations based on favorable geology, existing infrastructure, and proximity to well sites and end users, such as cracker plants.

Earlier this year, PTT officials said they would wait until the end of 2017 to make a final decision on whether to build a giant ethane cracker along the Ohio River in Belmont County. Some estimate the project would cost up $6 billion, though company leaders maintain there is no precise price at this time.

Nevertheless, about 12 miles south of the Dilles Bottom site, Denver-based Energy Storage Ventures hopes to begin storing ethane before the end of 2018. Officials said the ethane would be pumped into and out of the underground caverns through pipelines.

When the Blue Racer plant initially opened on the other side of the river, officials said they could not keep ethane in above-ground storage tanks because of its volatility, meaning it is readily vaporizable at a relatively low temperature.

Some Marcellus and Utica shale ethane is now being shipped out of the region for cracking, but the rest of it is blended into the rest of the methane stream to be sold as commercial natural gas. The senators said they want to “end this waste.”

“Our region’s access to natural gas and natural gas liquids, like ethane and propane, combined with our proximity to manufacturing markets in the Midwest and the East Coast make West Virginia an ideal location for a storage hub,” Manchin said.

However, Tim Carr, chairman of the West Virginia University Geology and Geography Department, has acknowledged there is some risk in storing ethane in underground caverns.

“Could they leak? Anything can leak, but salt caverns are about as safe as you can get,” Carr said. “The result of such a leak is not long-term pollution in the river, but a flammable gas that could ignite.”