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PTT Global Chemical taps Bechtel for possible Utica Shale ethane cracker

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Sequential cracker projects could more easily draw workers

Houston — Appalachian gas producers, under pressure from prices below $3/Mcf, got a boost Thursday with engineering giant Bechtel's announcement that Thailand's PTT Global Chemical had awarded it a contract to build an ethane cracker in Belmont County, Ohio, in the heart of the Utica Shale.

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The project still needs a final investment decision. But selecting Bechtel as the contractor of the project is a major step toward that decision. Bechtel Oil, Gas & Chemicals Senior Project Manager of Pennsylvania Chemicals Paul Marsden, already working as the manager of Bechtel's work on Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary Shell Chemical Appalachia's multibillion-dollar ethane cracker in Monaca, Pennsylvania, made the announcement at the Northeast Petrochemical Conference in Pittsburgh.

Another new cracker would give producers a new outlet for ethane, a natural gas liquid that they blend in the gas stream when it cannot be sold. The project is expected to be capable of producing 1.5 million metric tons per year of ethylene and its derivatives. Shell's plant will produce up to 1.6 million mt/year of polyethylene. Analysts speculated full capex for the project could reach $6 billion.

Charlie Schliebs, managing director of private equity funds at Stones Pier Capital, said the lack of a final investment decision announcement at this stage is to be expected. "These things [FIDs] take a long time, but that project is happening," Schliebs said.

The US Department of Energy has estimated that the Marcellus and Utica shales can support up to four more crackers, besides PTT's and Shell's. Observers expected a final investment on PTT Global's project more than a year ago. PTT Global could have been watching to see if costs on Shell's project spiraled out of control.

Asked whether Bechtel would face challenges getting enough labor to work on both the Shell project and the PTT, Marsden said it would be "a challenge. We will have to manage that." But he noted that the timing of the projects could actually work in the builder's favor, as having sequential projects lined up could encourage welders and other key workers to relocate to the region instead of simply coming in for one project at a time.

NGLs, which sell at prices linked to crude oil, are becoming a larger share of the revenues of Appalachian shale gas drillers. Producers see NGL production as the only escape from stable, low natural gas prices. Two Appalachian producers, Range Resources and Antero Resources, are already shipping ethane, propane and butane to Europe via Sunoco Pipeline's Mariner East family of pipelines.

PTT Global's US subsidiary, PTTGC America, is using the site of a shuttered FirstEnergy coal-fired power plant in Mead Township of Belmont County as the future cracker's site. The company has already allocated $100 million on surveys and permits.

Belmont County is the leading gas-producing county in Ohio with 2.6 Bcf/d of production in the first quarter, according to Ohio's Department of Natural Resources.

-- Bill Holland, S&P Global Market Intelligence, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Gail Roberts, newsdesk@spglobal.com