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February natural gas was set to open Thursday about 7 cents higher at around $2.982 as the market looked ahead to a potentially record-setting Energy Information Administration (EIA) storage report.
Coming off the most potent stretch of heating demand since the 2013/14 winter, consensus estimates this week showed the market has been generally confident EIA will report a record withdrawal at 10:30 a.m EDT.
A Reuters survey of traders and analysts showed on average a 333 Bcf withdrawal for the week ending Jan. 5. That would shatter the previous record -- a 288 Bcf withdrawal reported Jan. 10, 2014 -- and more than double the year-ago and five-year average totals of -151 Bcf and -162 Bcf, respectively. Responses to the Reuters survey ranged from -285 Bcf to -362 Bcf.
A Bloomberg survey showed a median -332 Bcf, with a range of -305 Bcf to -345 Bcf. PointLogic Energy called for a 325 Bcf withdrawal.
"Net exports in addition to intensely cold winter weather pushed total demand to record highs throughout the storage week," PointLogic told clients earlier this week. "Total domestic demand gained just over 20 Bcf/d week-on-week," mostly in the Midwest and East regions.
Stephen Smith Energy Associates updated its weekly estimate Tuesday to show a withdrawal of 316 Bcf, while Kyle Cooper of IAF Advisors predicted a 338 Bcf pull.
"It's going to be a big one," analysts with Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. said Thursday morning. "...Storage levels as implied by the Street’s estimated draws are plunging toward five-year minimums for the week after kicking off the winter season a touch under normal levels. However, weather forecasts swinging fully in favor of warmer than normal temperatures across the U.S. in the weeks ahead have Henry Hub lingering below $3.00/Mcf.
"The gas storage/pricing relationship is beginning to closely resemble our New Year’s resolutions. We keep dieting, but the scale just doesn't seem to move."
Production growth over the past year has the market feeling "a sense of security" about supply despite such a potentially large pull from inventories, Price Futures Group senior analyst Phil Flynn told NGI Wednesday.
If the number offers a bullish surprise, "then you might get a sharp rally, but because the infrastructure has improved so much over the last year as far as pipeline capacity and production, we're more calm."
Warm temperatures in the longer-range forecast also play a part in this calm, Flynn said.
"We might get a pretty good draw next week, but it's already been above freezing in Chicago this week, and even though we're going to get another cold blast next week" the recent stretch of significantly below normal temperatures could end up being "the end of the deep cold."
Radiant Solutions forecasts on Thursday showed above normal temperatures across most of the Midwest and East beginning late in the six- to 10-day period.
In its 11-15 day outlook, Radiant noted "a small change in the warmer direction and focused late in the period with a stronger rebound of above-normal temperatures in the Eastern Half...Colder leanings are limited to the West; however, overall confidence remains lower than usual as the Global Forecast System model is a colder solution while all models have struggled of late at this lead time."