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Midwest Cold, Pipeline Outages Lead Some Prices Higher; Futures Ease

Natural gas for weekend and Monday delivery was highly varied in Friday's trading. A major interstate pipeline declared a force majeure, and although earlier polar vortices do not seem to be in play, many traders were not desirous of being short gas going into the weekend with cold weather clearly an added risk.

Multi-dollar gains seen in the Great Lakes and Midwest easily offset weakness in the Rockies, California, Gulf Coast a parts of the Northeast. Futures prices stayed within their recent trading range and at the close April was off 4.4 cents to $4.618 and May had declined 3.6 cents to $4.567. April crude oil rose $1.02 to $102.58/bbl.

Great Lakes and Midwest buyers were kept on edge as a major pipeline bringing gas from the south declared a force majeure. NGPL said on its website that "a force majeure event has occurred at Compressor Station 102, located in Beaver County, OK. Natural has experienced an unexpected outage due to a mechanical failure on one of the compressor units requiring Natural to reduce the throughput capacity northbound out of the Midcontinent Zone. The scheduling constraint will be at Compressor Station 103 (the beginning of Segment 11 of Natural's Midcontinent Zone). Any gas received south of Station 103 for delivery north of Station 103 (including transport associated with storage withdrawals) will be impacted."

Traders also had to deal with an anticipated sharp temperature drop over the weekend, which also made precautionary purchases viable. Forecaster Wunderground.com predicted the high in Chicago Friday of 51 would plunge to 29 Saturday before making it back to 46 on Monday. The seasonal high in Chicago for mid March is 43. In Detroit the Friday high of 47 was forecast to drop to 33 on Saturday before reaching 42 on Monday. The normal high in Detroit is 40.

The National Weather Service in Chicago reported that "a cold front currently stretching from central Wisconsin into south central Iowa will drop southeast across the forecast area this evening [Friday]. Over the weekend, it said, "a decent push of cold air behind the departing cold front will drive temperatures back down into the -7c to -9c range Saturday afternoon resulting in surface highs that struggle to reach the freezing mark."

Gas for weekend and Monday delivery on Alliance jumped $3.99 to $12.82, and gas at the Chicago Citygates rose by $1.92 to $8.72. On Consumers gas was seen at $12.24 up $3.22, and on Michcon packages changed hands at $13.59, up $4.91. At Northern Natural Ventura gas came in at $10.32, up a stout $3.31.

Midcontinent points held steady or eased. Gas for weekend and Monday delivery at the NGPL Midcontinent Pool rose 3 cents to $4.72, and gas on NGPL's Amarillo Line fell 40 cents to $4.85. Deliveries on OGT fell 16 cents to $4.65, and on Panhandle Eastern weekend and Monday gas added 3 cents to $4.80.

Rockies prices were lower by about a quarter. On CIG Mainline weekend and Monday parcels were seen 26 cents lower at $4.58, and at the Cheyenne Hub gas was seen at $4.80, down 10 cents. At Opal packages for the weekend and Monday fell 25 cents to $4.61 and on Northwest Pipeline WY gas fell 22 cents to $4.51.

Futures traders are looking for stronger prices. "We are maintaining a forecast for some fresh price highs. But, at the same time, we feel that these highs will need to be established next week if they are going to develop," said Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch and Associates in closing comments Friday. "In other words, the time window for a sizable price advance of more than 5% or so appears to be closing with the approach of the shoulder season. This is why we have adjusted stop protection upward to just below the $4.50 level.

"But, at the same time, we still feel that the process of bringing supply to market via y over y output gains of more than 3%, enticing increased imports into the country and spurring power plants to consume more coal will all require a stronger curve structure than currently exists. Implied is a continued preference for bull spreads across the 1 year portion of the curve."

Forecasters see a slight moderation in the near term. WSI Corp. in its Friday morning report said, "[Friday's] six-10 day period forecast has trended milder over the northern Plains and Northwest when compared to yesterday's forecast. Forecast confidence is considered [reaching] just average standards as models show good agreement during the early half of the period, but then technical differences develop later in the period."

Risks to the forecast include the models "struggling with the mean evolution and propagation of another cut-off low-pressure system digging over the West early. If the European op is correct, temperatures would likely run warmer than forecast over the East late in the period."

Analyst Alan Lammey of WeatherBELL Analytics sees most of the weather premium out of the April contract. He senses that the market is balancing "the remaining cold for the duration of March in relation to the ending natural gas storage 'carry-out' verses the calendar, which says that 'spring time' is on the horizon. While the market may have already eliminated the 'winter premium' from the prompt-month contract, there are still plenty of fireworks ahead over the next two to three weeks, which could lead to lots more price volatility."

In his view, the 13.9-cent gain posted by the April contract Thursday was due to the 152 Bcf draw reported by the EIA being about 15 Bcf less than market expectations. He pegs next week's withdrawal between 185 Bcf and 195 Bcf.

He said to watch last Friday's trading to see if April closes above $4.61, "suggest[ing] that April gas futures may continue higher next week." He pegs near-term support at $4.53 to $4.49 and resistance at $4.69 to $4.72. "Early-bird estimates for next week's storage data is for a withdrawal ranging between 185 Bcf and 195, which would establish a new all-time record large withdrawal for the month of March."

Taking a longer term view, Lammey said, "Key resistance for April is seen in the area of $4.70 to $4.73, followed by between $4.76 and $4.799. If the latter is violated, it opens up a possibility for a further rebound back toward $5 as the next major resistance barrier, followed $5.20 to $5.38, which will probably be visited in the next three to four weeks. Key support for April gas resides between $4.49 and $4.40. If violated, look for sellers to test the $4.33 area, which is considered major support. It's not likely that prices will trade much lower than the $4.25 area for most of this year."

Others also see the market poised for a possible move higher. At the close Thursday, traders thought the market would have registered a more bullish response to the 152 Bcf inventory draw. "We still have a 20-cent range from $4.50 to $4.70 and you think it would have popped a little more with that kind of number," said a New York floor trader. "I was surprised we weren't higher than we were. "I think if we get above $4.75 to $4.76 we will get some fresh buying, maybe squeeze out a few shorts and run to $4.90 to $4.95."

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