Record U.S. LPG exports to Asia hit naphtha when it’s already down

SINGAPORE, May 24 (Reuters) – Asian petrochemical makers will use around twice as much liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in June as in the previous two months, undercutting already weak margins being earned on traditional chemical feedstock naphtha, trade sources said.

U.S. exports of LPG to Asia are hitting their highest rates ever this year and exacerbating the usual seasonal May-July pick-up in use of the fuel in cracking plants.

This will put more short-term pressure on naphtha cracks, or profits earned from making the light fuel, which have weakened as refiners ramped up processing rates because of cheap crude.

The weak cracks will in turn drag on overall refining margins <DUB-SIN-REF>, which had previously been supported as strong demand for gasoline and naphtha offset poor markets for other fuels.

"U.S. LPG exports this month are high. Propane will certainly stay in the cracking pool this summer," said one Singapore-based source who trades naphtha. "LPG used (in crackers) in July could go over 350,000 tonnes. It could even reach 400,000 tonnes."

Asian naphtha cracks for May 3-23 averaged $56.40 a tonne, the lowest for the same period since 2009. <NAF-SIN-CRK>

Still, petrochemical plants will likely return to using mostly naphtha from August. LPG is mainly an alternative that becomes attractive when it is not needed for winter heating demand or other industrial uses.

Asian petrochemical makers usually replace up to 15 percent of their naphtha with LPG when prices for the second feedstock are about 92-93 percent of the naphtha price.

LPG prices on May 23 for first-half July were $345 to $361 a tonne, less than 90 percent of a naphtha price at $417.50, data from brokerage Ginga Petroleum showed.






For June, at least 300,000 tonnes of LPG are expected to replace naphtha in Asian crackers, up from under 200,000 and 150,000 tonnes respectively in May and April, traders said.

If substitution climbs to 400,000 tonnes in July, that would match a monthly record touched in June 2014, based on traders’ estimates. There is no official data tracking the use of LPG as a chemical feedstock.

"Higher global LPG availability in 2015, on the back of strong supply growth, has certainly filtered through to flows to Asia in the short-term," said David Wech, managing director of consultancy firm JBC Energy.

But he added that a relatively greater potential for a cold winter could lead to stronger demand and higher prices for LPG as early as August.

Demand for LPG as a feed for refining units that produce propylene, a precursor to plastics, could also mop up the extra supplies and push prices up.

U.S. LPG exports to Asia this year are expected to hit a record of 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) – nearly 800,000 tonnes a month – data from JBC Energy showed.

Exports from the United States to Asia in May are expected to be similar to a monthly record of about 1 million tonnes in February, consulting firm IHS said.

Asia’s top naphtha importer Formosa Petrochemical Corp in Taiwan has revamped its crackers and South Korea’s Hanwha Total Petrochemical has built a storage tank to prepare for a flood of LPG expected to hit Asian shores.

Petrochemical consumption will account for 15 percent of total Asian LPG usage by 2017, up from 11 percent in 2015, according to IHS.

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