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Natural Gas Physical Market Creeps Lower, But Futures Tugged Higher

Natural gas for delivery Thursday moved little in Wednesday's trading as traders were willing to discount forecasts of a cold, wet snow-mix that is expected to hit the Northeast and keep temperatures well below seasonal norms.

Overall, the physical market was down a nickel at $2.88, with most locations outside of New England only moving a couple of pennies on either side of unchanged. The futures markets, however, saw a bevy of activity with natural gas responding to a stout rally in crude oil and petroleum markets.

At the close, April had added 6.5 cents to $2.920 and May was up 6.4 cents to $2.936. April crude oil jumped $1.20 to $44.66/bbl after trading close to $1.50 lower earlier in the day.

Prices in New England held double-digit levels and moved the most, but overall failed to respond to forecasts of decidedly unspring-like weather. AccuWeather.com forecast that Boston's high of 30 Wednesday would make it to 33 Thursday and 35 Friday, 11 degrees below normal. Hanover, NH's high of 24 Wednesday was anticipated to rise to 27 Thursday and to 34 by Friday, well off the seasonal high of 45. Hartford, CT's 32 high Wednesday was forecast to increase to 36 Thursday then to 34 on Friday, off the normal mid-March high of 48.

Thursday deliveries to Tennessee Zone 6 200 L added 22 cents to $11.22, yet gas at the Algonquin Citygates came in 25 cents lower than Tuesday trading at $11.91. Gas on Iroquois Waddington fell 45 cents to $3.59.

To the south, packages on Tetco M-3 fell 17 cents to $2.34, while gas bound for New York City on Transco Zone 6 dropped a couple of pennies to $2.83.

Quotes in the Marcellus were widely mixed. Deliveries on Millennium East Pool fell 2 cents to $1.61 and gas at Transco-Leidy Line added 2 cents to $1.54. Gas on Tennessee Zone 4 Marcellus, however, added 12 cents to $1.47 and gas on Dominion South was quoted 10 cents lower at $2.05.

It may take a stronger storm than forecast to prompt significant price movement.

"A storm spreading rain across the South this week will take a northward jog and spread snow to part of the Interstate-95 and I-81 corridors of the Northeast on Friday," said AccuWeather.com meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.

"Spring officially arrives on Friday...at 6:45 p.m. EDT, but Old Man Winter may have the last laugh. Colder air will invade the Northeast during the middle days of the week, and the atmosphere is likely to remain just cold enough for some wet snow before the week draws to a close.

“Despite the colder air, temperatures will be marginal for the storm with a close call between rain and snow along the I-95 corridor in the mid-Atlantic, Long Island and along the southern coast of New England. Much of the snow that falls in this area may melt on roads. However, there will be some exceptions.”

A mix of rain and snow was seen as most likely in Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Wilmington, DE, and Trenton, NJ. Travel is expected to be impacted.

“Areas farther north such as Harrisburg, Allentown and Scranton, PA; New York City and White Plains, NY; Hartford, CT; and Boston are likely to be cold enough for all or mostly snow,” said Sosnowski. “Airline delays due to deicing and poor visibility are likely in the New York City area and perhaps as far north as Boston. Most areas within this swath will receive 1-3 inches of snow with the greatest amount on non-paved surfaces.”

Price moves at Rocky Mountain points were fairly representative of the broader market. Gas at the Cheyenne Hub rose 4 cents to $2.45, and deliveries on CIG Mainline was unchanged at $2.38. At Opal, next-day gas rose a penny to $2.45.

Next-day gas in California was mixed as well. At the SoCal Border Thursday deliveries were unchanged at $2.57, but gas at the SoCal Citygates fell 3 cents to $2.77.

Futures trading was far more exciting.

"I think the natural gas market rallied in sympathy with the crude and products simply because they rallied so hard," said a New York floor trader. "The crude ran up $1.20 to $44.17 and at one point it traded $42.03. RBOB ran up 6.8 cents and heating oil rallied 8 cents. The [April] natural gas made it to $2.935 before settling at $2.920. We were hovering around the $2.83 to $2.85 level and rallied 6 cents off the strength of the other markets. Volume was almost 140,000 contracts in the April, which is big, but the move was off the crude and products which took off big."

In spite of Tuesday's double-digit advance, forecasters at Natgasweather.com rate the level of gas demand as low to moderate for the next seven days and categorize any weather threat as low.

Temperatures were seen cooling by “several degrees over most U.S. regions” Wednesday with showers over Texas and the east-central United States as weather systems tracked out of the Southwest and Mexico, providing several degrees of cooling.

"A sharp cold front has also swept through the Northeast, resulting in overnight lows dropping into the teens and 20s, although the truly cold air will fail to push any farther south,” said Natgasweather.com forecasters. “A stronger cold blast will follow late Friday into early next week over the Midwest and Northeast, driving a period of stronger heating demand, although with potential flaws that need close watching as cold air struggles to again push south of the Great Lakes. The western U.S. will remain warmer than normal, although there will be showers into the Northwest and Southwest at times."

The National Weather Service (NWS) calculated more heating demand for the Northeast. For the week ended March 21, NWS said New England would see 221 heating degree days (HDD), or 19 more than normal, and the Mid-Atlantic would endure 196 HDD or 14 more than its seasonal tally. The greater Midwest from Ohio to Wisconsin is expected to see 168 HDD, or 22 fewer than normal. The United States as a whole is forecast to see total HDDs, 18% fewer than normal.

Analysts see conventional seasonal analysis for natural gas prices as losing relevance. Walter Zimmermann of United ICAP pointed out that the average seasonal low for natural gas prices is Feb. 11, but "here we are a full month later and there is still no sign of any traction to the upside. There were only three years when the seasonal low occurred later than today. For those three years the average seasonal rebound was only a 39% gain in spot contract value.

"Given the recent deflation driven dumps in the NGLs and LNG the risk for natgas is not simply congestion instead of a seasonal rebound. The risk is a price dump," he said in a weekly letter to clients.

Traders will get a chance to extend Wednesday's rally when government inventory figures are released. Last year 69 Bcf was pulled from storage and the five-year average stands at a 45 Bcf withdrawal. For the week ended March 13, ICAP Energy estimates a 52 Bcf decline and industry consultant Genscape calculates a 50 Bcf withdrawal. Citi Futures Perspective is looking for a 47 Bcf pull.

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