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Most NatGas Markets Quiet as May Takes Prompt Position; Analysts Eye Tightening, Price Support

Natural gas prices for May shifted less than nickel at most market hubs between March 28 and 31 as mostly bearish weather on tap for the next couple of weeks and an in-line storage report left the market relatively idle, according to NGI’s Forward Look.

The Nymex May contract climbed 2.4 cents during that time to settle March 31 at $1.958, while June held steady at $2.052. The balance of summer (July-October) also remained flat at $2.22.

Markets were closed March 25 in observance of Good Friday.

On a national level, forward prices were up 1.4 cents for May, flat for June and down 2 cents for the balance of summer, Forward Look data shows.

Across the border in Canada, however, prices along the AECO curve were significantly lower between March 28 and 31 as strong Northeast production and warmer weather on the horizon pressured prices.

AECO May prices were down 13.2 cents between March 28 and 31 to just 89.4 cents, while June was down 10.6 cents to 98.9 cents. The balance of summer fell 7.6 cents to $1.26.

While the immediate term may not offer much hope for price recovery at AECO, the start of operations at Seven Generations Energy’s Cutbank processing plant, which is tied into Alliance Pipeline, could lead to increased exports into the Midwest this summer.

Stateside, the lack of significant movement along U.S. forward curves is typical for the start of the shoulder season, when demand softens as temperatures climb from winter levels.

And that is exactly what forecasters say is on tap across much of the U.S. during the next two weeks.

While areas like the Great Lakes and the Northeast are in store for some polar weather systems beginning the weekend of April 2-3 and again late next week, most of the country will remain pleasant with daytime temperatures ranging from the 50s to 80s.

“After the weather system late next week exits the eastern U.S., warmer southerly winds are expected to force the cold pool over southern Canada to retreat northward, bringing a milder set up across much of the country for mid-April, but still with spring storms traversing the country with swings in demand from low to moderate,” forecasters with NatGasWeather said.

But several market insiders have noted recently that while weather indeed has been behind the market’s recent moves, there appears to be some tightening behind the scenes that could provide some much-needed relief to prices in the coming months.

For example, U.S. dry gas production stayed relatively flat in March year on year at about 72 Bcf/d, with trends pointing to year-on-year declines in the coming months, according to equity research analysts at global investment bank Jefferies.

Analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch also see production falling in the coming months as producers have cut 2016 capex and output.

“Overall, we now see U.S. production declining sequentially until fourth quarter 2016 as associated shale gas and conventional gas production declines outside the Northeast more than offset growth in the Marcellus,” analysts said in a BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research report.

On the demand side, gas picked up further market share from coal in March, rising 1.8 Bcf/d (roughly 8%) to around 24 Bcf/d, Jefferies said.

And the potential for gas to take more market share from coal appears promising as more than 6 GW of operating coal-fired generation capacity is set to retire by year-end, according to Bentek Energy.

Another 10 GW is expected to be retired by the end of 2018, while some 12.5 GW of new gas-fired generation is already under construction and expected to be online during the same time frame, the company said.

Assuming all of the lost generation is replaced by existing or new gas-fired generation would result in up to 2.1 Bcf/d of additional power burn demand, however, renewables would likely take on some of the lost coal generation, Bentek said.

Meanwhile, Mexican exports continue to move higher and look likely to average around 3.4 Bcf/d, a roughly 1 Bcf/d increase year over year, while Canadian imports look to have fallen about 0.7 Bcf/d to roughly 4.6 Bcf/d, Jefferies said.

Also, the recent start-up of the Sabine Pass LNG export facility on the Gulf Coast has created  about 0.4 Bcf/d of new LNG ‘feedgas’ demand, Jefferies said.

Weather remains a factor in the coming months as La Nina conditions are expected to appear on the heels of the weakening El Nino that brought about the warmest winter on record.

“A very strong La Nina effect would result in a hotter-than-normal summer and may push Nymex natural gas to $2.75/MMBtu by July, but La Nina would also act as a dampener on winter prices and may prevent a price recovery in 2017,” the BofA Merrill Lynch report said.

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