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Eastern NatGas Cash Up; SoCal Storage Leak Sparks CA Price Decoupling

Buyers weren't taking any chances Friday in acquiring supplies of weekend and Monday gas. Weather forecasts called for a frosty start to the week, and in major eastern markets restrictions helped boost prices by close to $1.

The NGI National Spot Gas Average added a stout 18 cents to $2.48, and next-day quotes in the East averaged gains close to 50 cents. Futures continued their grind higher, and at the end of the day February had made a new high for the move and settled 9.0 cents higher at $2.472 and March had gained 7.7 cents to $2.471. February crude oil sank 11 cents to $33.16/bbl.

Weekend and Monday prices for gas into the New York-Philadelphia area jumped as traders had to deal with and early-week compressor failure on Texas Eastern and the resultant process of restoring linepack. Early in the week a compressor in Texas Eastern's M-3 market zone in central Pennsylvania went out for several hours, and although it is now back online, "linepack will need to be restored, which will limit TETCO's ability to deliver gas in excess of nominations. The event could trigger moderate volatility around the M3 hub as flows through Entriken have been in excess of reported operational capacity in recent days," Genscape said in a report.

Volatility was certainly in play for weekend and Monday gas, yet observers were optimistic that warmer weather might diminish demand in the area, which may alleviate pressure on over-nominations.

Gas on Texas Eastern M-3, Delivery was quoted a stout 86 cents higher at $2.45, and gas bound for New York City on Transco Zone 6 changed hands 60 cents higher at $3.21. Gas packages on Transco non-New York North, southeastern-most Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey surged 84 cents to $3.01.

California traders are warily eyeing developments at the SoCal Gas Aliso Canyon Storage Facility within the greater Los Angeles area. A leak detected at the facility's injection site on Oct. 23 has led to above-average withdrawals this winter in attempts to reduce pressure and mitigate the leak. Previous attempts to plug the well were unsuccessful, and a relief well being drilled by SoCal is not expected to be completed until later this winter.

"The market impact depends on how Aliso Canyon affects southern California's ability to import gas. If you are de-rating northern and southern zone import capacity then that can affect the relationship between SoCal Border Avg., El Paso Mainline and the SoCal Citygate system," said an analyst with EnergyGPS, a Portland, OR-based power and natural gas market and consulting firm.

"If you can't move gas from the Border into SoCal Citygate, then there will be a decoupling of those prices."

That decoupling may have already begun. The SoCal Border Avg. winter 2016-2017 strip jumped some 18 cents during the week alone, settling at $3.16 on Jan. 7, as California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, forcing the evacuation of more than 2,000 residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood atop the Aliso Canyon field.

The 2016-2017 winter strip sat Oct. 23 at $2.98, according to historical NGI data.

Rick Margolin, senior natural gas analyst for Genscape, said concerns are mounting the Aliso Canyon storage field -- the largest on SoCal's system and one of the largest in the country -- will have to be abandoned.

"Summertime flows from inbound supply sources (El Paso, Transwestern, Baja Path, etc.) will likely decline as less of that gas could go to storage refilling. But dependence on flowing supply will likely increase in winter due to less storage available for withdrawals," Margolin said.

Gas for weekend and Monday delivery at Malin rose 9 cents to $2.60, and deliveries to PG&E Citygate gained 2 cents to $2.82. Gas at the SoCal Citygate also added 2 cents to $2.81, and packages prices at the SoCal Border Average jumped 12 cents to $2.65. Gas on El Paso S. Mainline/N. Baja rose 14 cents to $2.68.

Other market hubs posted solid gains. Deliveries to the Chicago Citygate rose 17 cents to $2.59, and deliveries to the Henry Hub added 12 cents to $2.47. Gas at Opal tacked on 10 cents to $2.56, and parcels on El Paso Permian rose 15 cents to $2.47.

Weather forecasters are not convinced of the return of El Nino-like weather patterns over the last half of January. Natgasweather.com in a Thursday midday update said, "After the Midwest and eastern U.S. warms back above normal through Saturday, a frigid polar blast will gradually begin pushing through the central U.S., and eventually into the East early Monday. A second reinforcing shot of polar air is expected Tuesday, with the track very important and likely to shift slightly before arriving. The combination of the two will drive around five days of strong heating demand."

The forecaster also said it is expecting a brief milder break late next week or the following weekend as the cold pool over Canada reorganizes around Jan. 16-19 and a strong Pacific jet stream approaches the West Coast. However, this could play out to be be a trap for model followers. The Pacific jet very well could ease or shift slightly, providing opportunity for cold Canadian air to surge right back into the north-central U.S. Therefore, coming weather patterns are going to be critical for the last 10 days of January to see if a tease in milder temperatures around Jan. 16-19 turns into a trap with subfreezing temperatures returning shortly after.

A top trader is looking to position himself to play the downside. "[A]lthough temperature moderation is being forecasted beyond next week, there are no significant warming trends on the horizon that appear sufficient to spur much selling interest. While an argument can be made that the current supply surplus of 465 Bcf is enough to cushion occasional up spike in HDDs, this heavy usage cycle is not far enough advanced to diminish the impact of the weather factor," said Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch and Associates in closing comments to clients Thursday.

"The market is also looking ahead to some much larger stock draws that could total more than 350 Bcf during the next couple of weeks combined. From a technical perspective, today's advance above our expected resistance at $2.38 would appear to set this market up for further gains to the $2.45 area. But we have shifted back into a bearish posture per [Thursday's] advance to above $2.38, and we would suggest holding any short positions with protection above the $2.50 level. Ultimate downside possibilities still exist to around the $2 mark but are unlikely until next month."

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