NGL Asset Management in the Age of Fractionation
Natural gas production has remained stagnant even as the nation creeps toward cooler weather. Instead, processing plants have begun to increase the variety of products in their portfolios, investing in asset infrastructure for purifying natural gas liquids.
But what does diversification like this mean, especially to an industry focused on cutting Opex costs and optimizing production? What concerns should stay at the forefront of midstream investors’ minds when installing, expanding, or reconfiguring NGL fractionation and distillation equipment?
Plan for market agility through asset utilization
Although the low cost of natural gas may be of benefit to gas-fired energy generators across the country – especially as air conditioning demand trends upward, according to Reuters – companies entrenched in the oil and gas industry must find new methods for capitalizing on goods without saturating the market. Extracting pentanes and other worthy hydrocarbons from NGLs prevents natural gas organizations from tapping extra wells and using the most of the production already available to them.
However, as midstream operations spin ethane, butane, etc. from NGLs, asset expansion necessary to control these varied resources only stands to complicate processing and open up room for mechanical failures, product mishandling, and perhaps even regulatory noncompliance. Additionally, a diversified stock so reliant on domestic and export market performance requires responsiveness to remain a boon to business. When one outperforms others, decision-makers must be at the ready to tilt production accordingly without compromising quality or service.
Maintain cost-effective energy consumption
Industry leaders know distillation columns used in NGL fractionation burn a lot of thermal energy, with as much as 40 percent used on site for “refining and continuous chemical processes,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Labor reductions to extraction upstream trim production to avoid market saturation, but these austerity measures also aim to deflate costs throughout all oil and gas operations while prices remain low. Adding energy-intensive assets without taking energy expenses into consideration may undermine cost-cutting initiatives elsewhere. Apart from balancing the books and ensuring the difference in operational growth doesn’t derail Opex cost reduction, what else can NGL producers and processors do to mitigate how much distillation may grow their energy footprint?
One method, according to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, involves targeting energy variability through the establishment of pressure controls, particularly for light-hydrocarbon columns. Researchers found even a 7 percent reduction in pressure could yield the typical distillation process a savings of $240,000 in annual energy costs. Moreover, advanced condenser mediums capable of balancing distilled resources at the perfect temperature could more than double those gains.
Oil and gas companies ought to concentrate more on how they run their distillation towers.
Avoid distillation column misuse
How fractionation towers function in a more general sense also matters, especially if on-site NGL distillation has undergone maturation because of process mapping and other physical changes to the layout of a facility.
For instance, Chemical Processing reported how many refiners focus too heavily on condensers and reboilers when they should give equal consideration to column feeds and how they perform around entrant trays. A misplaced feed could force fractionation towers to work overtime and increase their energy demand unnecessarily. This mistake may also cause asset failure due to imbalance, compromising safety and the quality of the product therein, as well as every other NGL that would have been harvested down the chain.
When altering process organization for greater operational efficiency gains, don’t alter feed locations unless data confirms the move won’t jeopardize asset availability and uptime. Remember: Distillation towers are almost the perfect embodiment of the domino effect. If one column becomes compromised, you will almost assuredly lose all others until the problem is remedied.
Fractionation presents natural gas with horizons to conquer and opportunities to turn market troughs into progressive growth as companies expand the scope of their operations. Before integrating new distillation assets or changing how you use the ones already on site, discuss your plans with a knowledgeable consultancy, preferably one with a specialization in continuous processes and utilization, as well as one with a proven track record in the field of oil and gas.