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EIA: Higher Natural Gas Bills for Households This Winter

Households heating with natural gas will spend an average of 15% more this winter than last year due to the anticipated colder heating season, slightly higher residential gas prices and an increase in demand, according to the Energy Information Administration's (EIA) Short-Term Energy and Winter Fuels Outlook that was released last Wednesday.

The agency said it expects U.S. households -- one-half of which use natural gas as their primary heating fuel -- to spend an average of $89 more this winter, reflecting a 1% increase in the average residential price from last winter and a 14% hike in consumption if near-normal (cold) temperatures materialize for the upcoming winter. Winter was unseasonably warm last year, resulting in little additional demand and weak prices. Going into the winter heating season, which starts Nov. 1, EIA expects gas inventories to be at a record high: 3,903 Bcf.

The EIA's projection on winter gas demand mirrors one by the Natural Gas Supply Association (NGSA) in its recent winter fuels outlook. The NGSA estimated that gas consumed by residential and commercial customers this winter would likely increase by 16% due to the anticipated colder weather (see NGI, Oct. 8). But the agency's price projection is at odds with the one made by the American Gas Association, which sees customer's gas bills rising 7% this winter.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's most recent projection of heating degree days, the Northeast, Midwest and South will be about 2% warmer than the 30-year average, but still 20% to 27% colder than last winter, while the West is projected to be only about 1% colder, the EIA said.

The EIA projects that gas consumption will grow this year, while marketed production of natural gas will slow. It sees gas consumption averaging 69.8 Bcf/d this year, an increase of 3.1 Bcf/d (4.7%) from 2011, due in large part from gains from the electric sector. Gas use by the electric power sector is expected to average 25.4 Bcf/d this year, 22% higher than 2011, the agency said.

Projected total gas demand is likely to fall by 0.2 Bcf/d in 2013, according to the EIA. "Although projected higher natural gas prices contribute to a 10.4% decline in forecast natural gas consumption in the electric power sector in 2013, consumption in the power sector next year is still expected to be about 1.9 Bcf/d higher than 2011 levels and high by historical standards," the agency said.

Henry Hub natural gas prices are forecast to average $3.35/MMBtu in 2013, compared to $2.71/MMBtu this year.

Total marketed production of gas grew by 4.8 Bcf/d (7.9%) in 2011. But the EIA forecasts that total marketed production growth will slow to 2.6 Bcf/d this year (to 69.76 Bcf/d) and 0.4 Bcf/d in 2013, as the reduction in drilling activity is offset by growth in production from liquids-rich gas areas such as the Eagle Ford and wet areas of the Marcellus Shale, and associated gas from the growth in domestic crude oil production.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports are expected to fall by about one-half this year from 2011. An average of about 0.5 Bcf/d will arrive in the United States (mainly at the Elba Island terminal in Georgia and the Everett terminal in New England) both this year and next, to "either fulfill long-term contract obligations or to take advantage of temporarily high local prices due to cold snaps or disruptions," according to the EIA. "Higher prices for LNG, particularly in Asian markets, have made the United States a market of last resort for LNG suppliers," it said.

Pipeline gross imports will fall by 0.2 Bcf/d this year as domestic supply continues to displace Canadian sources, the agency said. It expects little change in 2013.

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