Spot natural gas prices for delivery Friday soared in Thursday's trading as cold and in some cases blizzard conditions were forecast for major energy markets in New England and along the East Coast as winter storm Hercules moved in.
Quotes above $30 were common at a number of locations, and only a handful of points were in the red on the day, typically by a few pennies. Futures responded to longer-term forecasts for continued cold. At the close February was higher by 9.1 cents to $4.321 and March had added 10.3 cents to $4.296. February crude oil tumbled $2.98 to $95.44/bbl.
The biggest gains on the day were seen at market locations in New England. Forecasts called for cold and snow to send temperatures from New England to Philadelphia plummeting to as much as 20 degrees below normal. Wunderground.com predicted Thursday's high in Boston of 20 would fall to 15 on Friday before climbing back to 26 on Saturday. The normal high in Boston in early January is 37. New York City's Thursday maximum of 30 was seen tumbling to 16 Friday and rising to 28 on Saturday. The normal high in New York is 39. Philadelphia's 34 Thursday high was seen dropping to 17 Friday before reaching 30 on Saturday. The normal high in Philadelphia is 41.
"An active weather system will push across the eastern third of the country on Thursday as a cold front extends from southern Texas to Ohio," said Kari Kiefer, Wunderground.com meteorologist. "Low pressure associated with this system will trigger widespread heavy snow across West Virginia, eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and across New England. To the south, a mixture of rain and snow will impact the Tennessee Valley and the southern Appalachians, while rainy weather will move over several southeastern states. A separate frontal boundary along the Gulf of Mexico will initiate showers and thunderstorms across Florida on Thursday.
"Meanwhile, a high pressure system will continue to linger over the northern tier of the country, as cold, blustery conditions will sweep across the northern Plains and upper Midwest. Portions of North Dakota and Minnesota will experience temperatures 20 to 30 degrees below normal on Thursday."
Gas for delivery Friday at the Algonquin Citygates was quoted at a stratospheric $30.11, up by $11.34, and deliveries at Iroquois Waddington rose by $10.88 to $32.17. On Tennessee Zone 6 200 L Friday packages came in at $31.96, up $12.67.
With the exception of Philadelphia and New York, gains in the path of the storm were more tempered. Parcels on Transco-Leidy added 51 cents to $2.26, and on Dominion next-day gas was seen at $3.96, up 25 cents. On Tetco M-3 Delivery Friday gas came in $13.84 higher at $18.82, and gas headed for New York on Transco Zone 6 gained $16.96 to $30.58.
“Air blasting southward from eastern Canada on Friday will send temperatures down to their lowest levels since January 2009 in many locations from New England to part of the Mid-Atlantic," said Alex Sosnowski, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com. "This includes temperatures dipping well below zero from northern Pennsylvania to the Hudson Valley of New York to southern New England, on northward into neighboring Canada. Cities that will plunge below zero Friday night include Boston, Hartford, Conn., and Scranton, Pa."
Tom Skilling of the Chicago Weather Center predicted that Thursday's high of 18 would rise to 20 Friday with "southwest winds increas[ing] to 15 to 25 mph, allowing temps to reach late-day highs near 20 degrees. Not as cold overnight. Readings hold in the teens." Saturday he expected Chicago to see a high of 29. The normal high for Chicago this time of year is 32.
"Thursday's lake snow and the bitter cold to follow is the focus of our graphic feature this [Thursday] morning. We will be monitoring a weekend snow possibility ahead of what could be a record outbreak of bitterly cold arctic air as we head into next week," he said on his Facebook page.
Gas on Alliance was quoted 7 cents higher at $4.82, and at the Chicago Citygates Friday packages were seen 8 cents higher at $4.85. On Consumers, next-day deliveries were a nickel higher at $4.80, and on Michcon gas came in 4 cents higher at $4.72. At Dawn, Friday packages changed hands at $4.85, up 2 cents.
Not surprisingly, pipelines were feeling the impact of the cold. Columbia Gas Transmission (TCO) said, "Shippers are advised that, based on forecasted cold weather, storage inventory levels, supplies, markets, and projected storage withdrawals, [it] may issue a Storage Critical Day for withdrawals."
Tennessee Gas Pipeline said it "anticipates very limited flexibility due to higher pipeline capacity utilization and significantly colder weather in the Northeast this week."
Texas Eastern and its Maritimes & Northeast connection both have criticals issued on capacity constraints as result of cold.
A futures trader said that the close over the $4.27 to $4.29 area shows that the market "may want to move higher."
Estimates for the 10:30 a.m. EST Friday release of Energy Information Administration storage data are all over the place. Last year 126 Bcf was withdrawn, and the five-year average stands at 121 Bcf. Citi Futures Perspective Analyst Tim Evans predicts a pull of 139 Bcf, and a Reuters poll of 20 traders and analysts showed an average 126 Bcf. Bentek Energy's flow model, however, forecasts a 99 Bcf withdrawal.
Weather forecasts are calling for more intense cold in the six- to 10-day outlook followed by some moderation in the 11- to 15-day period. "Some of the coldest air since middle January 2009 is showing up in the Midwest late this weekend and early next week as highs in Chicago are forecast to remain below zero on Monday and only in the single digits on Tuesday," said Matt Rogers, president of Commodity Weather Group. "The cold air should modify some as it hits the East Coast early to middle next week, but our changes for the event are to the colder side (adding significant demand to the Jan. 10 EIA week).
"The modeling then agrees to rapidly warm the pattern by later next week into the 11-15 as the Alaskan ridging pattern recedes. As we have seen often in this high standard deviation winter, the warmer shift may be temporary as some modeling suggests some rebuilding of ridging toward Alaska by late 11-15 day along with another possible push of mid-continent cold (less intense than next week)."
Fundamentals analysts see conditions in place for a supported market. Addison Armstrong of Tradition Energy sees the market trying to bounce back from Tuesday's drubbing derived from "revised forecasts indicating warmer temperatures than previously forecast across the East during the second half of January. Gas prices, after pushing to a 2.5-year high above $4.50 during the third week of December have now retreated 7% or nearly 32 cents amidst year-end profit and a weakening seasonal outlook. But winter heating demand and rapidly shrinking storage levels should provide support for the market in the coming weeks," he said.
Technical analysts, however, note that seasonal market tendencies highly favor the bears, but they aren't ready to call for lower prices just yet. "For the past two weeks we have been encouraging clients to add put protection," said Brian LaRose, a technical analyst with United ICAP. "Why? This is the time of year where natgas historically slides on average 43% in spot value. A 43% loss from $4.532 would target $2.586. The risk clearly warrants the protection. However, to confirm some sort of top is in place bears still need to push natgas below $4.201-4.155-4.092. It is bottom or else," he said in closing comments Tuesday to clients.