Have you wondered what happened to the Dragon Ships during the Mariner East 1 shut-down?
As part of the original plan for the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2 pipeline), the European petrochemical giant Ineos commissioned eight “Dragon Ships” from Chinese shipyards. Ineos needs ethane from the Marcellus shale to run its refineries in Scotland and Norway, now that the North Sea gas fields are depleted. So Ineos agreed to provide the market for the ethane that Sunoco/ETP wanted to move through its Mariner East pipelines.
The Dragon Ships that Ineos commissioned are specifically designed as ethane carriers, with high-pressure tanks, facilities for capturing and re-compressing ethane “boil-off”, and even custom-designed engines with the ability to run on ethane (as an alternative to fuel oil).
Starting in the fall of 2016, the Dragon Ships started calling at Marcus Hook 2 or 3 times a month to take on cargoes of ethane from Mariner East 1, destined for Ineos refineries in Scotland and Norway. When ME1 was shut down in March, they stopped coming. The last one to come to Marcus Hook was the Ineos Ingenuity, which took on ethane on March 18 and headed off to Scotland.
In case you are curious, information about ship movements like these is freely available on numerous websites. The map in the illustration above is from www.myshiptracking.com. I selected the ships to show, and I added the annotations. Generally speaking, locations are only available when the ships are near land. The data comes from an international collision-avoidance network.
Since March 18, none of the eight ships has come to Marcus Hook. So where were they, and what were they doing? For the most part, they simply began picking up ethane in Houston, the only other terminal for ethane export in the US. One or another of them has called at Houston on nine occasions since they stopped coming here. They have also visited other Ineos facilities in Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal, presumably ferrying other gasses among those plants.
During this time, Sunoco/ETP has not benefitted from any of this, because they are not involved in the Houston facility, nor the pipelines feeding it.
But things could change soon. Apparently Sunoco is confident that ME1 will soon be back in operation, because one of the Dragon Ships, the Ineos Intrepid, left Norway bound for Marcus Hook on May 2nd. Its intended arrival date is May 14.
Ineos’ decision to send the ship to Marcus Hook must be based on an assumption that ME1 will be back in operation well before May 14. It would take at least 3 days of all-ethane transport operations on the ME1 to get a full boatload from western Pennsylvania to Marcus Hook. And what happens if ME1 remains shut down? Change course for Houston, I guess. Ineos probably doesn’t care whose pipe it gets ethane from, and there’s plenty of ethane available in Texas—a glut, in fact.