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Glimpse of Winter Jolts Range-Bound NatGas Futures; Cash Rebounds by Double Digits

Natural gas markets got a jolt Monday from the season's first glimpse of legitimate winter cold; both day-ahead and futures prices shot out of the gates to start the week as short- and longer-term forecasts presented cooler risks, and the NGI National Spot Gas Average added 47 cents to close at $2.86/MMBtu.

The futures market set the tone for the day, with the December contract opening about 8 cents higher and ultimately settling up 15 cents at $3.134. January added 13.5 cents to settle at $3.232. December crude oil gained $1.71 to settle at $57.35/bbl.

"Friday's midday weather data trended colder with a system and cold shot across the northeastern U.S. late this week, which continued to trend colder in more of the data through the weekend," NatGasWeather.com said in a Monday note to clients. "It's important to mention, impressive gains today have been made even with Lower 48 production reaching all-time record highs over 76 Bcf/d this past weekend.

"As for the latest weather data, the late-week system will remain the main weather headline this week as it brings a glancing shot of frigid temperatures across the far northern U.S., with Chicago and New York City dropping into the mid-20s. This is a fast-moving system with milder conditions quickly returning by early next week."

And just like that, a futures market that has been range-bound for months got a dose of winter volatility.

"We're in the period of time where the market is going to change on all these forecasts," Tom Saal, vice president at FCStone Latin America LLC, told NGI Monday. "If there are a couple cold forecasts, it'll rally like it did today. And then in another week, even if the weather does turn cold, if it's above-normal it'll cycle down. This is just par for the course."

Saal noted that even with Monday's gains the market didn't break out of the recent range of around $2.75-$3.15. As winter arrives, it would be normal for volatility to return to the market, he said.

"I think what we've seen...has been an ultra lack of volatility," Saal said. "The price has stayed pretty stable, which is unusual."

NGI Markets Analyst Nate Harrison noted that the upper and lower Bollinger bands for the prompt-month futures contract began to tighten at the beginning of the summer and have been tightening since, suggesting a market poised to break out in either direction.

Meanwhile, the cash market rebounded from Friday's lackluster performance, and every single point covered by NGI gained by double-digits. Regional averages climbed by around 20 cents or more across the board, and some points in the Northeast and Appalachia added more than $1 on the day.

The strong performance in the cash market had bidweek buyers looking pretty wise.

"Purchasers who locked in their gas during bidweek trading last week are probably feeling pretty good, as many points in the daily market have risen significantly since," Harrison said. "Points like Panhandle Eastern, Chicago Citygate, Waha and Columbia Gas are all up more than 20 cents in the daily market over what they traded at during bidweek. It could even be that a premium is being placed on flexibility this month as winter moves in."

The Northeast Regional Average gained $1.24 on the day, with the promise of late-week cold appearing to boost regional prices that had been lagging following the reintroduction of capacity at Algonquin Gas Transmission's Stony Point compressor. Algonquin Citygate recovered from Friday's flirtation with sub-$1 prices, adding $1.21 to finish at $2.26. Transco Zone 6 NY jumped $1.54 to $3.03.

Appalachian prices also got a lift, with Dominion South adding 82 cents to $1.65 and Columbia Gas tacking on 33 cents to $2.87.

Columbia Gas Transmission LLC told shippers Monday that start-up for the 1.5 Bcf/d Leach XPress project, a 160-mile greenfield expansion of its system designed to move Marcellus and Utica shale gas east-to-west, will be delayed until early January.

Originally scheduled to come online this month, the operator attributed the delay to "a very compressed 2017 construction window" resulting from "permitting delays, weather setbacks and other unforeseen construction hurdles."

Saal said the delay to Leach XPress, another major new route for Appalachian supply to hit the market, likely had an additional bullish effect on futures.

There was plenty of black ink to be found elsewhere in the country Monday.

Henry Hub added 29 cents to gain some ground on the prompt month contract, ending the day at $3.03. Chicago Citygate added 22 cents to $3.05.

Out west, SoCal Citygate, showing volatility recently resulting from supply constraints, added $1.05 to $3.98. Regional grid operator California ISO was calling for peak demand Tuesday of 29,016 MW, roughly in line with Monday's forecast peak of 28,960 MW.

Bespoke Weather Services said the late-week cold blast is likely to be short-lived, creating the potential for a pullback in prices.

"We see a significant cold shot over the next week as elevating gas-weighted degree days decently above average, and that has supported both cash prices and the front of the natural gas strip into the weekend," the firm said in an afternoon note to clients. "Next week it does look like at least one surge of warm weather will move across the country primarily from the the 13th through the 18th, and that will pull heating demand below average. Our expectation is that this warm shot could trend a bit stronger, and combined with record production levels was part of the reason we are seeing the potential for an early week pullback in prices before the true extent of longer-range cold risks becomes realized by the market."

With expectations of cold in the East in late November and early December, Bespoke said it doesn't expect "too sustained of a pullback even if one or two models does temporarily trend warmer in the medium or long-range, and continues to lead us to see any pullbacks as good buying opportunities."

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