What is midstream?

Midstream is the intermediate phase between the upstream and downstream sectors of the oil and gas industry and refers to the processing, storage, and distribution of crude oil, natural gas, and other energy products. Midstream includes all the infrastructure needed to move these resources, such as pipelines, trucks, railways, and ships.

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Midstream 101

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The Production Process: Upstream, Midstream, Downstream

The oil and gas industry supply chains are varied and complex. They start with in-ground resources and end with finished products for consumers globally. The steps from initial production to the end-use can be divided into three major components: upstream, midstream, and downstream. Upstream refers to the exploration and extraction of natural gas and crude oil; midstream encompasses all of the connection services such as processing, transportation, and storage, and downstream involves the transformation of crude oil into usable products as well as the selling or distribution of products made from crude oil and natural gas. In some cases, sectors of the supply chain may overlap. See graphic below.

The Production Process: Upstream, Midstream, Downstream

Upstream: The Discovery and Production Process

The upstream sector is commonly known as the exploration and production (E&P) sector within the petroleum industry. It involves the extraction of crude oil and natural gas by using well-defined technical processes to safely drill wells and install in-ground production equipment that brings the valuable materials to the surface. After reaching the surface, equipment is installed to separate natural gas, crude oil, saltwater, and other impurities for further handling.

Significant activities in the upstream sector include:

Midstream: Gathering, Processing, Transportation, and Storage

The midstream sector covers a range of services that move natural gas, NGLs, and crude oil from areas of production to where these materials are transformed into marketed products. Midstream gathering pipelines move natural gas and crude oil production from thousands of wells to central locations for further handling. Natural gas is delivered to treating plants where unwanted impurities are removed as well as processing plants where valuable NGLs (such as ethane, propane, butanes, etc.) are extracted. The natural gas remaining after treating and processing is often referred to as “pipeline-quality natural gas,” which is transported via intrastate and interstate gas transmission pipelines to the downstream segment of the natural gas sector that fuels homes and businesses as well as electric power generators. Midstream crude oil gathering pipelines operate separately from natural gas gathering pipelines to deliver oil to larger transmission pipelines that transport their products to U.S. refineries and export facilities. NGL transmission pipelines collect natural gas liquids from processing plants around the U.S. and deliver the mixture of products to “fractionation centers.” The mixed materials are then separated into usable feedstocks to the downstream sector, where petrochemical plants transform them into consumer products such as plastics and medicines. Additionally, refiners turn the material into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Midstream companies operate fleets of barges, rail cars, and trucks to deliver crude oil to supply area storage locations as well as to move NGLs and crude oil refined products to consumer markets. Some stages of the midstream process may overlap with the upstream and downstream sectors.

Significant activities in the midstream sector include:

Downstream: Finishing the Product

Downstream refers to the finishing stage of the oil and gas supply chain. This is where raw materials get turned into finished products and eventually delivered to consumer markets. These include refining crude oil and the marketing distribution of petroleum products such as lubricants, asphalt, jet fuel, diesel oil, heating oil, kerosene, and gasoline, as well as the production of petrochemicals that are used to produce plastics, medicines, medical equipment, paints, clothing and electronics from NGLs. Natural gas is delivered to homes and businesses for heating, industries like steelmakers and fertilizer production to make food and consumer goods, and electric generators to provide power to illuminate our living spaces and operate the information technology of modern life.

Significant activities in the downstream sector include:

Steps in Midstream Natural Gas Operation Value Chain

One of the oil and gas industry’s primary raw materials is natural gas, a fossil fuel and one of the world’s cleanest energy sources. The midstream sector has five main components in the movement of natural gas from its production location to its ultimate use: gathering, processing, storing, transporting, and marketing.

The Importance of Midstream

The midstream sector is the backbone of our energy economy. It serves a vital role in the oil and gas industry by helping transport and transform raw hydrocarbons produced by a well into usable materials. Without the acts of gathering and processing, the delivery of natural gas to your home or gasoline for your car wouldn’t be possible. Plus, you wouldn’t see familiar products like rubber, plastics, or synthetics on the market without hydrocarbons.

Midstream’s Impact on the Environment

Midstream operators work with landowners, neighbors, regulators, and local governments to plan pipeline routes and build facilities to minimize the impact on the environment and endangered species. No matter the location, midstream assets are subject to numerous regulations and rules that are put in place to ensure operational safety and environmental considerations are a top priority. After the construction is over, regulations are in place to require companies to continuously monitor and measure the ecological effects of midstream operations to meet environmental standards over the asset’s life. These regulations provide strong incentives to apply and use best practices to minimize impacts to the environment. In addition, midstream company employees want to prevent, reduce or mitigate the environmental impact of their operations on their families and communities in which they live.

The Future of Midstream

Midstream facilities and services are needed for many decades to come. The transformation of consumer energy production to include more renewable sources should be done thoughtfully to ensure that the United States does not lose the economical and reliable supplies that currently power our economy and provide jobs for millions of people in manufacturing, services, and technology. Additionally, Midstream will likely provide expertise to recover and transport carbon dioxide associated with carbon capture (CCUS) as well as the transportation of hydrogen in natural gas pipelines. The dedicated employees of U.S. midstream companies are committed to safely operating their facilities to deliver their products to their customers while being mindful of reducing their impact on the environment we all share.

Midstream Q&A

What is upstream, midstream, and downstream in oil and gas?

The oil and gas industry is usually divided into three sectors: upstream, downstream, and midstream. The upstream stage of the production process involves identifying and extracting crude oil and natural gas from the ground. Midstream takes the raw material and processes, stores, and transfers it via pipelines, trucks, rail, tankers, and other infrastructure. The downstream stage turns the raw materials into a finished product and distributes it into the marketplace.

What is a midstream oil and gas company?

Midstream companies prepare the oil and natural gas for various downstream markets, remove water or waste products, and compress, store, and transport the product. These may include companies that specialize in operating pipelines, processing plants, or storage facilities.

Is oil refining midstream or downstream?

Refining is usually classified as a downstream operation within the oil and gas industry, although many integrated oil companies operate both upstream extraction and downstream refining services.

Is LNG midstream or downstream?

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is natural gas that has been condensed and liquefied. This is typically done in the downstream segment of the oil and gas process to make transporting and storing natural gas easier.

Are pipelines safe for the environment?

Interstate pipelines are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are an environmentally friendly way to transport enormous amounts of energy such as natural gas, propane, and gasoline. Gathering pipelines and shorter intrastate pipelines are regulated by state-level counterparts of these agencies as well as the DOT and EPA to ensure they adhere to all regulations for safety and environmental protection.

Does natural gas cause pollution?

While the combustion of natural gas produces a variety of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides, natural gas is the lightest and least greenhouse gas-intensive hydrocarbon in the energy mix.

Which is better natural gas or coal?

Compared to coal, the pollution and greenhouse effect of natural gas is relatively low. Natural gas is cleaner and has fewer greenhouse effects as an energy source than coal during the combustion and use phase.

What does midstream mean?

The oil and gas industry comprises three broadly defined sectors: upstream, midstream, and downstream. The midstream sector serves to connect products in areas of supply to areas of markets. For instance, midstream facilities transport natural gas and crude oil from upstream wells to gas treating and processing plants where natural gas is made ready for use in heating our homes and making electricity, or to refineries where crude oil is turned into gasoline and diesel to operate vehicles. Midstream companies ensure that materials such as heating oil, plastics, jet fuel, petrochemicals, propane, and natural gas are readily available to make our lives better every day. Midstream companies are an essential part of the oil and gas production value chain.

What is midstream in oil and gas?

The midstream sector is a vital part of the North American oil and gas industry. After crude oil and natural gas are extracted from thousands of wells operated by the upstream sector, midstream companies transport these raw materials to gas processing and treating plants and oil refineries. Midstream also connects supplies like natural gas, petrochemical feedstocks like propane, and refined products like gasoline to end-use markets. Midstream operations employ various methods to transport materials long distances, including pipelines, railcars, and tankers.

Why are pipelines the safest way to transport oil?

Pipeline transportation is the safest way to carry crude oil as well as refined products, and natural gas long distances. Pipelines' capacity is far greater and more efficient than other modes of transportation. Technological advancements have significantly increased pipeline safety by constantly monitoring operating conditions and product flows. Pipeline companies are working with regulators to implement rigorous engineering standards to ensure their systems protect the communities they cross.

Do pipelines destroy ecosystems?

Advancements in pipeline construction and maintenance reduce the chance of damage from unplanned releases of the products they carry. Environmental protection standards make pipelines safer by selecting pipeline routes that minimize the crossings of wetlands and water sources. Affected ecosystems are protected by managing natural resources, monitoring endangered species, and restoring wildlife habitats.