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Sasol Clears Major Hurdle to Build America’s First GTL Plant

Sasol Clears Major Hurdle to Build America’s First GTL Plant

Last week, South African-based Sasol Ltd. cleared a major regulatory hurdle to build the United States’ first Gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant near Lake Charles, Louisiana. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved Sasol’s wetland modification permit to build the industrial complex that would use natural gas as a feedstock to produce 96,000 barrels of diesel fuel and other liquids per day. If built, estimated construction costs are between $11-14 billion and the complex will be the largest foreign investment in the history of the state of Louisiana.

The logic behind Sasol’s big capital spend is relatively simple: Sasol is making a bold bet that natural gas in the U.S. will remain relatively cheap compared to oil on a BTU basis. Since 2009, the price ratio of crude oil to natural gas has spread significantly, with oil gradually rising, while natural gas has remained relatively flat.

price per million btus
Figure 1 Source: EIA. Figures based on 5.8 Mbtus per barrel

The rocky history of large scale GTL projects has led developers and investors to become increasingly skeptical and cautious of large undertakings. With the help of Shell’s Middle Distillate Synthesis (SMDS) process, which carries over 3,500 patents, both Qatar and Malaysia are among the few with success in building viable plants. Qatar’s Pearl project began in 2012 and produces 140,000 b/d, while Malaysia’s Bintulu plant, which began in 1993, produces 14,700 b/d. South Africa’s national oil company, PetrolSA, holds the distinction of operating the world’s first GTL plant, which began in 1992 and produces 22,000 b/d.

Shell's Pearl GTL project in Ras Laffan Industrial City, 80 km north of Doha, Qatar
Figure 2 Shell's Pearl GTL project in Ras Laffan Industrial City, 80 km north of Doha, Qatar

With Shell’s GTL success in both Qatar and Malaysia, the U.S. Gulf Coast energy sector was dealt a major setback last December when Shell announced that it was cancelling its proposed GTL plant in Louisiana. Some of Shell’s concerns included the lack of skilled labor, rising project cost estimates, increased uncertainty of future domestic natural gas prices, and concerns about a stagnating demand for gasoline. The graph below depicts BP forecasts regarding global oil liquids and natural gas demand.

The 2014 BP Statistical Review
Figure 3 Source: The 2014 BP Statistical Review

Sasol’s hopes to turn America’s record production of natural gas into the more valuable oil liquids will depend on its proprietary Sasol Slurry Phase Distillate Process. Like Shell’s ultra-secret SMDS process, Sasol’s three-state process combines three patented technologies. Sasol has refined this process while partnering with Qatar Petroleum to build a 32,400 bpd plant that produces diesel, naphtha, and liquid petroleum gas.

QP-SASOL joint venture Investor Presentation
Figure 4 Source: QP-SASOL joint venture Investor Presentation

While the final decision from Sasol on whether to move forward with the Louisiana project is expected in the fall, after examining engineering evaluations and financing options, the GTL community was reminded this week just how troubling building a GTL plant can be. Chevron Nigeria’s 33,000 bpd plant came online this week and the numbers are not pretty. The project was completed nine years behind schedule. The initial estimate for the plant was $1.7 billion, but in the end constructions costs totaled nearly $10 billion. This hefty cost overrun and absurd production delay could make Sasol think twice whether the time is right for the U.S. to become the next major GTL player.

By. Chris Pedersen

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Leave a comment
  • scott on September 05 2014 said:
    what is the estimated time of completion on this plant?
  • Chris on September 05 2014 said:
    Phase one is expected to be completed in 2019. Phase two in 2020.
  • Paul D. on September 05 2014 said:
    How does the economics compare to Siluria's OCM/ETL process?
  • Chris on September 05 2014 said:
    I have found conflicting numbers regarding Siluria's Hayward ETL facility. At this point, it would be difficult to compare the economics because Siluria has not prove their technology to the scale that Sasol, Shell, and Chevron have. That might change when Siluria builds a plant in La Porte, TX.
  • Argosy on September 05 2014 said:
    Nigeria is indeed a cautionary tale. But Chris, you are suggesting that the US is as violent and corrupt as Nigeria. Can you support that claim?
  • Roland on September 05 2014 said:
    There's lots of 'stranded' gas. Wouldn't it make sense to prefab these GTL plants and ship them to NW AU, Mozambique, North Slope AK, PNG, etc. instead of making LNG? I hear cost of LNG is ~$6/Mbtu plus wellhead, Fig.1 above clearly beats that. Chevron Gorgon LNG might be a little higher (snark), but hey it's a sunk cost.
  • CrazyCooter on September 06 2014 said:
    Excellent article! This is why I like to troll OP. :-)

    It will be very interesting to see if they press ahead with this project. Please do a follow up when something shakes out one way or the other.


  • Mike on November 09 2014 said:
    Is this the plant that is suppose to be built by Malaysian workers only?

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