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$1-Plus Northeast Spikes Lead Overall Gains

Triple-digit spikes at Northeast citygates stood out amid otherwise mixed pricing Friday that nevertheless had a major bias toward the upside. The extra Northeast strength was hardly surprising, since that region was destined to bear the brunt of a weekend return to widespread, very cold weather.

Friday's gains ranged from a couple of pennies to around $1.20. Flat to a little more than a nickel lower numbers were concentrated at western and Midcontinent points.

The Weather Channel (TWC) projected weekend snow accumulations in the Northeast in the range of 2-8 inches, and said this week should begin with regional temperatures 5-20 degrees below average. Conditions in the Midwest would be relatively quiet and merely cold until a winter storm approaches from the Rockies around the middle of this week, TWC said.

Meanwhile, most of the South could expect a rainy weekend with no worse than cool temperatures prior to a warming trend early in the week. And it would be a case of deja vu for the West, with a quiet Saturday followed by a rainy West Coast storm with snow and substantive cold limited largely to the mountain areas.

Following Thursday's storage report, the chorus of analysts got louder in proclaiming that withdrawal season-ending inventories will be at a record 1.6 Tcf or better. Citigroup's Kyle Cooper was typical in a Friday commentary, saying, "The storage comparisons are nearly unbelievable with current levels nearly 50% higher than the five-year average. To fall to 1,600 Bcf by the end of March, withdrawals must exceed the five-year [average] by over 32% every week. At the end of March, exceeding a rather small number is not that difficult on an absolute basis. Still, 32% every week is probably a bit difficult and 1,600 Bcf is now considered to be the low end of storage levels.

From that point, even if average injections fall 10% below the five-year average, end-of-October storage levels rise to 3,520 Bcf. Since 1994, the highest storage level on record is just 3,327 Bcf, recorded in 2004. Inventories are, and should remain, a very bearish factor for the foreseeable future. The only known fact about the upcoming injection season is that required purchases of natural gas for mandatory storage requirements will be the lowest in recent times."

First-of-month index plunges of more than a dollar look to be the norm for March if the screen is any guide (and it usually is a fairly reliable one). March futures went off the board Friday at $7.112 after a late dive. That's $1.288 below the February settlement of $8.400.

In recent months there appeared to be an urgency to get next-month baseload trading done in a hurry, leaving little to be wrapped up in the last couple of days. This was especially so when the middle of bidweek spanned a weekend transition. However, a producer and a marketer concurred that March business was slow in developing late last week, with both blaming screen gyrations that left many physical gas traders hesitant to commit when radical late-afternoon futures movement could alter the situation quickly.

Yes, it's been a slow bidweek so far, a producer who trades the Northeast said. However, with the futures settlement firmly established Friday afternoon, he expects March trading to be pretty active on Monday. He quotes these basis deals done Friday: Dominion South, plus 40 cents; Columbia Gas, plus 32-35 cents; and Texas Eastern M-3, plus 63-64 cents.

A Texas-based marketer was a bit frustrated with the slow pace of bidweek trading through Friday, saying the screen "can't seem to make up its mind." She cited a substantial run-up in March futures late Thursday followed by a late crash on Friday's expiration day. She did have these fixed prices for March deals done Friday to report: Waha, low $6.10s to mid $6.30s; Transwestern-Permian, mid $6.10s; Northern Natural-demarc, mid $6.40s to mid $6.60s; NGPL-Midcontinent, mid $6.20s; El Paso-San Juan at $6.00 even; and ANR Southwest, mid $6.20s to mid $6.30s. It was hard to accurately compare those numbers with the trend over the previous two days because of so many up-and-down price movements, the marketer said. The daily market was routine, as far as she was concerned.

Cooper of Citigroup made an initial estimation of a storage withdrawal in the mid to upper 150s Bcf for the week ending Feb. 24.

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