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US Gulf Coast refinery demand for hydrogen increasingly met by merchant suppliers

Published by , Deputy Editor
Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Petroleum refineries in the US Gulf Coast increasingly rely on merchant suppliers, rather than their own production, to provide the hydrogen used to reduce the sulfur content of fuel. As global demand for distillate fuel oil has increased and sulfur content regulations have become more stringent, refineries have needed to use more hydrogen. Hydrogen demand is expected to continue to rise as International Maritime Organization regulations that limit the sulfur content in marine fuels take effect on 1 January 2020.

Petroleum refineries use hydrogen in downstream units, such as hydrocrackers and hydrotreaters, to meet fuel specifications for producing distillate, jet fuel, and other petroleum products. Hydrogen is particularly important in processing low-grade, sour crude slates that are rich in sulfur content. Refineries typically fulfill incremental hydrogen demand by either producing it on-site through steam reforming of natural gas or by purchasing it from merchant suppliers.

As demand for hydrogen increases, US Gulf Coast refiners (those in Petroleum Administration for Defense District 3) are consuming more hydrogen from merchant suppliers than from their own production. Between 2012 and 2017, consumption of hydrogen sourced from merchant suppliers increased from about 1750 million ft3/d to 2200 million ft3/d, a 25% increase. Over the same period, on-site production of hydrogen from natural gas fell from about 475 million to 415 million ft3/d, a 13% decrease. Merchant suppliers accounted for more than 85% of hydrogen consumed by refineries in 2017.

The increased use of purchased hydrogen by US Gulf Coast refineries is a response to limitations on the amount of hydrogen that can be produced on-site compared with the supply of hydrogen provided by merchant suppliers. A large share of hydrogen used by US Gulf Coast refineries is supplied by a 600 mile, 1 billion ft3/d network of hydrogen pipelines stretching from Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Houston, Texas.

Industrial hydrogen is produced in two ways: on-purpose hydrogen production using steam methane reformer (SMR) units or as a by-product of other chemical processes. Natural gas is used almost exclusively as feedstock for on-purpose hydrogen production in petroleum refinery SMR units in the US, but refiners also collect and use byproduct hydrogen from their own catalytic reformer units. EIA only collects data on hydrogen produced by SMR units.

Between 2012 and 2017, US Gulf Coast petroleum refineries increased hydrocracking capacity by 50%, with a similar increase in distillate production. Over the same time, SMR capacity decreased by 19%, leading refiners to purchase more hydrogen from merchant suppliers.

Refineries located in the Midwest US (PADD 2) have increased hydrocracking capacity by 13% from 2012 to 2017. Unlike US Gulf Coast refiners, Midwest refiners historically have not been as reliant on merchant suppliers because of a lack of dedicated hydrogen pipelines. Some Midwestern refiners use more Canadian, sour crude oil, which requires more hydrogen to process. Overall, the utilisation of US Gulf Coast refinery SMR units has been between 41% and 48%, while in the Midwest it has risen from 60% in 2012 to 66% in 2017.

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