US Shale Spurs Record Foreign Chemical Investment

30.06.2014 -

Chemical producers around the globe plan to invest as much as $72 billion in new US production facilities to take advantage of cheap shale gas-derived feedstock, says a report by the news agency Bloomberg.

According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), foreign companies account for 62% of announced capital investments in the US chemical industry, the largest-ever investment by non-US firms, BASF, Braskem and Shell, for example, have said they've become convinced of the advantages.

"We came to the conclusion this will be a sustainable advantage for the US," Hans-Ulrich Engel, BASF's North American chief, told Bloomberg. "That is why we are comfortable making an investment."

The world's largest chemical producer is confident its new US facilities will benefit from cost advantages over plants in other regions as US gas reserves have surged to more than 100 years of supply, Engel added.

US gas prices, which peaked in 2005 at more than $15 per million British thermal units, are seen as averaging about $4.65 this year, compared with about $9 in Europe. While prices may increase slightly, Engel said he expects them to remain among the lowest in the world and cheaper than naphtha.

In addition to building an on-purpose methane-to-propylene plant on the US Gulf Coast, BASF has expanded a Texas ethylene facility it owns with France's Total, and is also considering an ammonia plant in Texas, in a joint venture with Oslo-based Yara International.

The propylene plant will cost more than the €1 billion TDI plant BASF is building at its home base in Ludwigshafen, the group's largest investment to date. The three BASF US shale gas-fed projects would add about €500 million to the group's annual EBITDA, Jeremy Redenius, a London-based analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein told Bloomberg. More than half of that, he said, will come from the propylene facility.

The foreign investments combined with new plants from US chemical producers such as Dow and Westlake total $117 billion and will help turn a $3 billion trade deficit for chemicals into a $30 billion surplus in five years, according to Cal Dooley, chief executive officer of the Washington-based American Chemistry Council.

Shell has signed 10 gas supply contracts, some for as long as 20 years, for proposed ethylene and polyethylene plastic plants in Monaca, Pennsylvania. While the company hasn't made a final decision on whether it will build them, increased gas production in the nearby Marcellus and Utica shale formations is making a positive decision more likely, Graham van't Hoff, executive vice president of chemicals at the company, told journalists at the ACC annual meeting.

In addition to the lower cost of converting US gas into plastics, the plant's location will save money because the gas won't need to be piped to the Gulf Coast, where most US chemical plants are located. There will also be benefits in shipping costs for delivering plastics to fabricators in the Northeast, van't Hoff said.

Shell has applied for state pollution permits, and started front-end engineering and design work and demolition at the western Pennsylvania site. The company also may build new chemical plants at its site in Geismar, Louisiana, and increase capacity at other US plants.

Together with partner Grupo Idesa, Braskem plans to spend $4.5 billion to build an ethylene plant and three polyethylene plants in Mexico set for start-up in 2015, said Fernando Musa, who oversees the Sao Paulo-based company's US operations.

Braskem signed an ethane-supply contract with Petroleos Mexicanos in 2009 at a price tied to the benchmark US price at Mont Belvieu, Texas.

In November 2013, Braskem announced plans for another ethylene-polyethylene complex to be built with its majority owner Odebrecht in Parkersburg, West Virginia, not far from Shell's proposed site. For this, the Brazilian company signed an ethane supply agreement with Antero Resources in March.

Plastics demand should improve converters realize that material and energy costs in the US are as cheap as anywhere, Musa told Bloomberg. "With more competitive ethylene, you should see the reduction of offshoring of the plastics industry and maybe some onshoring," he said.

Switzerland's Clariant is doubling catalyst production in Louisville, Kentucky, to serve new and expanded US chemical plants. CEO Hariolf Kottmann suggested in an interview with the agency that some already announced US projects will be delayed or canceled because of obstacles such as rising costs, tightening labor markets and a lack of engineering expertise.

Not every chemical producer is ready to jump onto the shale gas train. Germany's Bayer, for example, is not planning any major US chemical investments, even though it foresees a shortage of MDI, Jerry MacCleary, president of the North America region, told the news agency.

Nevertheless, the shale boom has Bayer and other chemical companies around the world taking a closer look at investing in the US. "It all supports the re-emergence of manufacturing in the United States that we didn't think was possible five to seven years ago," MacCleary said.