Why higher natural gas liquids prices help gas processor MLPs

Natural gas processors can be sensitive to commodity prices in the form of frac spreads

Some market participants view fractionation spreads (also called “frac spreads”) as one indication of the profitability of some natural gas processing companies. Frac spreads depend on natural gas liquids (NGL) and natural gas prices, and they increase when NGL prices increase relative to natural gas prices (for a detailed explanation of fractionation spreads, please refer to Why fractionation spreads affect some MLP stocks and An in-depth look at the mechanics of fractionation spreads). Generally, natural gas processing companies such as MarkWest Energy (MWE), Targa Resources (NGLS), Williams Partners (WPZ), and DCP Midstream Partners (DPM) realize more profits when frac spreads increase.

2013.08.21 - Fractionation Spread STEnlarge Graph

Frac spreads higher on the week

Last week, natural gas prices increased. But most NGL prices also increased. Ultimately, this resulted in higher frac spreads (as measured by a custom index created by Bloomberg, using assumptions provided by Ceritas Group).

2013.08.21 - Fractionation Spread TableEnlarge Graph

Note: The custom frac spread is based on assumptions provided by Ceritas Group. To see how the custom frac spread is calculated, please refer to An in-depth look at the mechanics of fractionation spreads.

The heavier NGLs (such as natural gasoline) tend to trade directionally with crude oil. Oil prices increased last week, which likely caused the heavier NGLs to trade up (for more on oil price movements, see Crude buoyed by Middle East turmoil). Plus, ethane tends to trade more in line with natural gas, which increased slightly on the week. Ethane increased as well (for more on natural gas price movements, see Natural gas prices up on inventories, but tempered by cool weather). For more on why ethane is linked to natural gas, please see Why ethane stopped trading like crude and started trading like nat gas.

Natural gas prices decreased, as mild weather tempered demand for the commodity (see Natural gas prices remain depressed with no help from mild weather). Meanwhile, natural gas liquids prices ended up mixed, with ethane’s significant declines balancing out propane’s price increases. Ethane has been trading directionally the same as natural gas. Meanwhile, propane prices could have increased on idiosyncratic demand factors, like petrochemical demand for propane in order to make propylene.

Frac spreads had generally decreased since mid-February, when they reached ~$30 per barrel. Since then, frac spreads declined to as low as ~$20 per barrel, mostly due to the strong rally in natural gas prices. Frac spreads have recovered somewhat since then, as oil has seen significant gains while natural gas prices have stagnated.

2013.08.21 - Fractionation Spread LTEnlarge Graph

Depressed ethane and propane prices have caused frac spreads to trade down over the medium-to-long term

Frac spreads had increased to between $40 and $50 per barrel (compared to current levels of around $25 to $30 per barrel) due to depressed natural gas prices, while NGL prices had remained relatively robust. Over the last year, frac spreads have declined, largely due to the sharp drop in prices in ethane and propane (see the chart above), while natural gas prices have recovered somewhat. But over July and August, frac spreads had recovered somewhat, as a sharp spike in oil prices helped to improve NGL prices.

The decline in ethane and propane prices has been a consequence of the “shale revolution” boom, as natural gas shales rich in NGLs have experienced rapid development, resulting in the market flooding with new NGL supply. While the excess supply of ethane and propane had been absorbed at first by the chemicals industry, much of the capacity for chemical companies to process ethane and propane has been soaked up.

More infrastructure for processing ethane and propane would support prices

Once more capacity for processing ethane and propane comes online or more NGL export capacity is constructed, it could provide additional long-term demand for these commodities and result in higher frac spreads. Several midstream companies have stated that they’re working on such projects. But the timeline for completing these works is over the next several years. Plus, even if demand for these NGLs grows as a result of completed infrastructure, the supply of NGLs also continues to grow. If supply meets or outstrips demand, the prices of ethane and propane may remain depressed.

Positive outlook

Circling back to a short-term perspective, last week, frac spreads traded up. This was a positive catalyst. Plus, frac spreads experienced significant recovery over July and August, resulting in a medium-term positive for gas processors such as MWE, NGLS, WPZ, and DPM—many of which are also components of the Alerian MLP ETF (AMLP).