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Firming Futures Can't Keep Up With Soaring NatGas Cash; April Up 3 Cents

Buyers for weekend and Monday natural gas were taking no chances Friday as forecasts of cold and snow across the Upper Great Lakes and New England as far south as Philadelphia brought buyers off the bench.

Gains east of the Continental Divide were hefty and widespread, and only a few points traded in negative territory. Prompted by multi-dollar gains in New England, theNGI National Spot Gas Average jumped 36 cents to $3.25.

Gains in the futures arena were far less exuberant, but spot futures managed to build on opening strength and finish just over $3. At settlement, April was up 3.4 cents to $3.008 and May had risen 2.8 cents to $3.074. April crude oil continued its losing ways, falling another 79 cents to $48.49/bbl.

The forecast cold was expected to hit Chicago and points east to New York and New England. Forecaster Wunderground.com predicted that the high Friday in Chicago of 31 degrees would ease to 30 by Saturday before rising to 34 on Monday, 10 degrees below normal. Pittsburgh's Friday peak of 33 was anticipated to slide to 28 by Saturday before recovering to 42 Monday, still 6 degrees below normal. New York City was forecast to see its 46 high on Friday drop to 29 by Saturday and work back to 32 on Monday, 16 degrees below its seasonal norm.

Gas at the Algonquin Citygate vaulted $1.98 to $7.92, and gas on Iroquois, Waddington jumped $2.33 to $6.32. Deliveries to Tenn Zone 6 200L soared $2.06 to $7.62.

Not to be outdone, gas bound for New York City on Transco Zone 6 added $2.79 to $5.93, and packages on Tetco M-3 Delivery were quoted at $4.04, up $1.20.

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"A pattern change will cause a temperature shift late this week and into the weekend," said Wunderground.com meteorologist Linda Lam. "This shift will allow arctic cold to return to parts of the Midwest and Northeast and will bring warmer temperatures to the Southwest. This change is due to the jet stream. A southward dip in the jet stream, or upper-level trough, is expected to develop over parts of the East. This will allow colder temperatures to slide southward into portions of the Midwest and East.

"Breezy conditions are anticipated Friday night and into Saturday in the Northeast, which will make it feel even colder. Wind chills well below zero are possible, especially in the interior Northeast. Wind chill advisories have been issued for parts of upstate New York and northern New England for late Friday night into Saturday morning for wind chills as low as 30 degrees below zero. Highs on Sunday will not be quite as chilly as Saturday, but will remain colder than average from the northern Plains to the East Coast."

Other market centers firmed, but gains were far less than those in the Northeast. Gas for weekend and Monday delivery at the Chicago Citygate rose 4 cents to $2.95, and deliveries to the Henry Hub added 15 cents to $2.98. Packages at Opal changed hands 8 cents higher at $2.66, and gas delivered to the PG&E Citygate fetched $3.22, up 6 cents.

Short-term traders like the market. "We've got some cold weather coming in, and it might get up to $3.15 to $3.18. Maybe $3.25," said a New York floor trader.

"I like the market as a short-term ‘buy.’ I would buy it here for a move to $3.15 to $3.18. At $3.15 I would take my profits, but not necessarily go short. I think it's a nice short-term rally and can sustain itself as long as there is some cold weather around."

Overnight futures trading lifted the market above $3, and analysis of storage data portrays a tightening market, traders said.

Analysts are taking a close look at a lack of production response to increased rig counts as well as fuel-switching. "This market is proving stronger than we had anticipated, with yesterday's assertive bullish response to a supportive EIA storage figure offering testament to a solid underpinning," said Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch and Associates in a Friday morning note to clients.

"From here, we can see the market working higher to around the $3.09 area where next resistance should halt this advance regardless of the weekend updates to the short-term temperature views. While these forecasts that are stretching out to about March 24th don't appear sufficiently cold to sustain price strength, they have been enough to force expectations of a reduction in the storage surplus beyond next week's EIA data. And with the approach of the shoulder period, greater focus is being placed on stronger than expected power demand, some of which has emanated from increased coal-to-gas switching as spot prices dropped to below the $3 mark.

"Lack of production response to the dramatic increase in the rig counts since last spring has also proven to be a significant bullish factor," Ritterbusch said.

Overnight weather model runs resulted in higher near-term heating loads. "The latest six-10 day period forecast is colder than yesterday's forecast over the eastern half of the U.S., but the western half is generally warmer," said WSI Corp. in its Friday morning report to clients. "The colder changes outweigh the warmer ones, so CONUS GWHDDs are up 6.2 to 99.5 for the period, which are close to average.

"Forecast confidence is only average, at best, today. There is still uncertainty with details of potential Northeast storm during the onset of the period and yet another potential system by the end of the period."

Although Thursday's EIA implied flow of a 64 Bcf withdrawal was way below five-year averages closer to 136 Bcf, analysts see a tightening market. "This week the -64 EIA stat was 1 Bcf below our estimate of -65. (There was a 4 Bcf reclassification in salt storage within the South Central region)," said industry consultant Genscape in a Friday morning report. "Versus degree days and normal seasonality, the 64 BCF draw appears tight by 1.6 Bcf/d when compared to the prior five years."

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