Energy myth 4-11-20

In Sunoco’s PR push for the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system), two myths are often cited in support of it: (1) that ethane (the principal product carried by Mariner East) is a source of “energy”, and (2) that the propane carried by the pipeline is an important resource for Pennsylvanians. On closer inspection, these claims are mostly false.

Is ethane a source of “energy”? It clearly is not. Virtually all the ethane flowing through Mariner East is exported for use as a feedstock for the plastic industry.

Sunoco claims that the recently-opened Fairview Energy Center will allow ethane to be used to power “up to a million homes”. That is false.

While it is true that the Fairview plant can power that many homes, when it runs it burns natural gas, not ethane. The plant does have a unique GE turbine that can burn a blend of 25% ethane and 75% natural gas, and this feature was tested in early 2020, right after the plant opened. It worked.

But ethane costs far more than natural gas, so it would be a money-losing proposition to continue burning ethane. The choice to install the ethane-capable GE turbine was probably made more than five years ago, at a time when ethane prices were briefly lower than natural gas prices.

Sunoco’s claim that ethane was used as a source of “energy” may have been true during a brief test, but it has not been true before or since, and in all likelihood never will be again.

Is propane from Mariner East “needed by Pennsylvanians”? It is not. Thanks to all the fracking in the Marcellus shale and elsewhere, the country is also suffering a propane glut. The US Energy Information Administration reports that January’s inventories for propane (the most recent data available) stood at about 75 million barrels, tying the previous all-time January record set in 2016.

A small amount of propane from Mariner East is presumably sold into the Pennsylvania market. The vast majority of it, however, is exported. Much of it goes to petrochemical plants, where it is used to make polypropylene plastic. Some goes to developing countries where, in combination with butane, it is sold in pressurized canisters as “liquefied petroleum gas” (LPG) for cooking. Almost none of it stays here. The US has far more propane than it needs.

A final myth that surfaces in some Sunoco propaganda: that Mariner East has something to do with supplying natural gas. (For example, look at this short video, supposedly about Marcus Hook, which just touts the benefits of natural gas.) Whatever you may think about natural gas, it is not relevant to the discussion of Mariner East. The purpose of Mariner East is to transport explosive compressed gases that are byproducts of natural gas drilling. It carries no natural gas whatsoever.

The next time you read that Mariner East is providing Pennsylvania with benefits, dig a little deeper. You’ll find that the benefits are going to Sunoco’s parent, Energy Transfer, and not to us.