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Impending Warm-Ups Produce Mixed Pricing

Looking ahead to a repeat of last week's moderation of cold weather after midweek but acknowledging that for now heating load remains fairly robust, the cash market turned in a mixed performance Tuesday. If not for the screen's 42-cent gain Monday, softening might have been more pervasive than it actually was Tuesday, one source said.

The Northeast was solidly higher, albeit by generally small amounts, while points in the Gulf Coast and West went in both directions as well as staying flat. The Midcontinent fell across the board, while its primary market area of the Midwest was mostly flat but contained a couple of higher points.

Disregarding the occasional flat quotes, Tuesday's losses ranged from a little less than a nickel to more than half a dollar. Upticks were as small as a couple of pennies but ran as high as about a quarter.

Most residents of the U.S. and Canada will have no trouble acknowledging that Wednesday marks the official start of the winter season, but for many of them it has felt like winter arrived several weeks ago. Stormy cold will remain prevalent across much of the upper West, and the Northeast can expect another push of arctic air from Canada followed by snowy conditions in much of the area. Chilly weather will continue to dominate the South, but the region's western end (Texas and Oklahoma) can expect highs more reminiscent of spring in the 60s and 70s, according to The Weather Channel.

Although freezing daily highs will make an appearance again Wednesday in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes area, the Midwest in general is expected to start getting a bit of relief from the cold around Thursday or so.

A unit failure at Westcoast's Compressor Station 4A (Summit Lake), combined with a unit that was already out of service with dry gas seal problems, has made the station unavailable for operation. The resultant cut of 246 MMcf/d cut in pipeline capacity to Sumas may have had something to do with Westcoast Station 2 and Sumas recording some of Tuesday's biggest drops. However, Westcoast apparently was having no shortfall in supply, since it set an imbalance tolerance range of zero pack and 20% draft for Wednesday. (The pipeline said it anticipated having one of the units available again late Tuesday or early Wednesday, with the second unit likely to follow later this week.)

A Gulf Coast producer said he "would hope" prices start settling down overall Wednesday, but a late upturn in January natural gas futures Tuesday to eke out a 3.7-cent daily advance indicated there may be a little bit of firmness left before more moderate weather and the holiday weekend start taking all cash numbers lower. He was not aware of any pipeline OFOs currently in eastern markets, although Florida Gas Transmission was warning shippers Tuesday of a potential Overage Alert Day notice. However, he noted that there are still transport constraints out of South Texas on pipes like Tennessee and Texas Eastern.

He hesitated to call it a "rush", but the producer said a lot of people want to finish their January business by Thursday or Friday. Since many cash traders will either be off Friday or leaving their offices early, there's a possibility of little actual bidweek trading occurring during the traditional bidweek period (the last five business days of the month), he said.

A Midwestern marketer noted that it looks like most of the U.S. will have milder weather in the last week of the year (see forecast below), adding, "I'm ready for it." It was still below freezing in her area Tuesday, she said, and though a modest warm-up is near, the area may have to endure freezing rain around the weekend before it gets warmer again early next week. While prices are still as high as they are, her company is sticking to buying only the bare minimum of daily gas necessary to meet obligations to customers.

The weather outlook for gas prices grows more bearish between Christmas and New Year's. In its forecast for the Dec. 26-30 period, the National Weather Service expects below normal temperatures only in the area south and east of a line running from Maryland southwestward through southeast Texas. It predicts above normal readings for the West Coast states along with most of Arizona and western Nevada, and in a large V-shaped region that extends from western Montana to western Wisconsin at the top but narrows into the Texas Panhandle at the bottom.

Golden, CO-based Bentek Energy projects a storage withdrawal of 164 Bcf to be reported for the week ending Dec. 16. It broke its figures down to 101 Bcf in the East region, 42 Bcf in the Producing region and 21 Bcf in the West region.

Citigroup's Kyle Cooper made a final estimation of a 173-183 Bcf pull for the upcoming storage report. That was considerably higher than his initial projection 150-160 Bcf), he said, as "physical pipeline flows remain robust. Despite numerous suggestions that utilities were experiencing lower demand per [heating] degree day, last week's draw and physical flows apparent today give little indication of any conservation measures at the residential and commercial level."

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