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Market Strength Starts to Fade in Mixed Pricing

After four days of rising at nearly all points, the cash market showed signs of retrenchment Friday. Gainers continued to outnumber losers -- but only barely. Quotes continued to rise at most Gulf Coast and Northeast points, where the much anticipated winter storm was just arriving, but softness dominated in the Midcontinent/Midwest and western markets.

Even the upticks were considerably smaller than Thursday's, ranging Friday from 2-3 cents to about a quarter. Other points ran the gamut from flat to down half a dollar.

Conditions were beastly in the Midwest with major accumulations of snow and ice joining freezing temperatures. The same would be true of the Northeast and South before the weekend was over. The West was still cold for the most part Friday and would remain so into the weekend (Denver was scheduled for a sub-freezing high Saturday), but spot gas buying obviously had largely abated in that area.

The Rockies price weakness occurred despite El Paso continuing a Strained Operating Condition (SOC) through at least Friday and Kern River declaring "critically low linepack" systemwide. However, CIG did end its own SOC Friday.

An Oklahoma-based producer believed that the softer pricing prevalent in the Midcontinent/Midwest in the face of still-heavy heating load was largely due to a lot of stepped-up storage withdrawals supplanting purchases in the daily market. Midcontinent gas was going for around $5 just before Thanksgiving, he noted, and at the end of last week was $2.50 or more higher. "So they [storage operators] were just waiting for this day," he said, thinking it was a good time to take some profits from supplies that had been bought for a couple of dollars more cheaply.

The producer said ONG offices were closed Friday because of icy roads, even though recent snows were starting to melt. He said an ONG staffer told him it was the first time that had ever happened.

Cash prices may have a tough time finding traction for renewed firming Monday, said a Gulf Coast producer. Not only did prompt-month January futures plummet 42.2 cents Friday, she said, but cash prices were falling late after strong starts. In addition, forecasts of moderating weather will be looming on the horizon for later in the week, she said. It's not all that terribly cold in the Northeast yet, she added, which limited the upside potential of weekend pricing.

Observing that the cash market had a very strong showing for most of last week, the producer said Friday's downturn in nearly half of the market was a sign that more softness is due in the coming week.

A Houston-based marketer said he continued to see fairly strong demand because of the cold, but buying was "not overly aggressive." He thought prices were falling late because "most people saw it [signs of softness] coming."

The National Weather Service's six-to-10-day forecast posted Friday shows considerable easing of the severe cold that is expected to extend through most of the U.S. through the middle of this week. In the Dec. 7-11 period the agency looks for below normal temperatures only in the South from West Texas through Virginia, excluding the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, northern Arkansas and the northwest quadrant of Tennessee. It predicted above normal readings in Arizona, the West Coast states except for southeast California, and the Plains and Upper Midwest stretching as far south as eastern Colorado and northern Kansas.

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