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Northeast Leads Physical Gas Advance, But Futures Bears Burned

Physical gas for Wednesday delivery strengthened in Tuesday's trading as broad gains at most locations combined with outsized advances at eastern and New England points were able to offset losses in the Midcontinent.

New England was particularly strong as cold and storminess was expected to rip through the area Wednesday, but eastern and northeast points were ahead of the average advance posted nationally. At the close of futures trading April had advanced 13.5 cents to $4.411 and May gained 14.2 cents to $4.414. May crude oil lost 41 cents to $99.19/bbl.

A major early spring storm is forecast to pummel New England and to a somewhat lesser extent Boston. Meteorologist David Epstein said, "[Wednesday] the commute will be slower in Boston with some snow. Over Cape Cod, where the heaviest snow bands set up, travel could be impossible for a few hours. I expect the snow to begin south of Boston around or just after midnight and spread into Boston and the western suburbs during the early morning hours before dawn."

Strong winds look to be a factor. "[T]he wind is the big issue from this storm. While some parts of Cape Cod will exceed six inches or more of snow, it's the near-hurricane force gusts just offshore that are the big story," said Epstein. Off Cape, close to the coast, winds will be strong enough to cause scattered power outages. However, winds do not appear to be forecast at a level to cause widespread power issues off Cape Cod."

Conditions would improve going into the weekend. "Once the storm passes, it remains chilly and windy Thursday before we turn milder for the end of the week and the start of the weekend,” he said.

Temperature-wise, maximums were expected to remain below seasonal norms. Wunderground.com predicted that the high in Boston Tuesday of 38 degrees would slide to 35 Wednesday before rising to 43 on Thursday. The normal late-March high in Boston is 48. Farther south in Princeton, NJ, Tuesday's expected high of 40 was seen dropping to 37 on Wednesday and climbing to 46 on Thursday. The normal high in Princeton is 54. In Washington, DC, Tuesday's high of 38 was anticipated to hold Wednesday before reaching 52 on Thursday. The seasonal high in the nation's capitol is 59.

Gas for delivery Wednesday at the Algonquin Citygates jumped $2.35 to $14.76, and on Iroquois Waddington next-day packages came in at $9.07, up $1.30. On Tennessee Zone 6 200 L gas rose a stout $5.20 to $17.85.

Marcellus and Appalachian points were strong. Gas for delivery to Transco Leidy added 76 cents to $4.15, and on Tennessee Zone 4 Marcellus next-day deliveries were up by 58 cents to $3.71.

On Dominion, packages for Wednesday were seen at $4.55, up 26 cents, and on Columbia Gas TCO next-day deliveries were quoted at $4.58, up 13 cents.

Pipelines serving New York and Philadelphia showed outsized gains. Parcels on Tetco M-3 rose 42 cents to $5.48, and gas headed for New York City on Transco Zone 6 gained $1.62 to $8.83.

Gulf points showed much more modest gains. Wednesday deliveries to ANR SE added 7 cents to $4.42, and gas on Columbia Mainline was 8 cents higher at $4.48. At the Henry Hub gas for Wednesday rose by 10 cents to $4.50, and on Transco Zone 3 Wednesday parcels were quoted 9 cents higher at $4.52.

In the early going, futures traders were not convinced the bullish cause had any legs. With April trading at $4.39 Drew Wozniak, vice president at United ICAP, said he was "not a bull from this level. Looking for choppy trading form here, with perhaps some dangerous whippy action if the volume is there."

He was anticipating a "close between $4.30 and $4.35, so that would make me a hard-selling Bear from the $4.375 level. Playing volatility in the right rhythm is a better high probability play today," he said in a note to clients.

Forecasters in their six- to 10-day outlooks were showing near-normal temperatures for much of the eastern half of the country. WSI Corp. in its Tuesday morning six- to 10-day forecast showed below-normal temperatures confined to the central portion of the U.S.-Canadian border, and a ridge of above-normal temperatures extending from West Texas into the Plains. "Temps have trended a bit cooler in the East with signals for a stronger cold frontal passage early in the week," the forecaster said. "Forecast confidence is about average with reasonably good model agreement through the middle of next week.

"Signals for yet another storm in the [Midwest] are relatively strong for the middle of next week. Temps may trend warmer than forecast for most areas south/east of [Chicago] if the low is as amplified as many ensemble members suggest."

Analysts admit that although prices have been soft recently, overall more risk is seen for higher prices than lower. "But at the same time, we will also concede to some additional temperature moderation that showed up in some of today's models that virtually brings an end to the heating cycle," said Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch and Associates in closing comments to clients.

He also pointed out that traders would likely be paying close attention to "the supply side by the middle of the week ahead of an Energy Information Administration storage report that will likely bring a further expansion in the deficit against five-year averages of more than 40 Bcf. "We are expecting a withdrawal of 54 Bcf, a decline that would compare with the five-year average draw of 7 Bcf. We also feel that lingering cold during the first half of this week could prompt one more significant supply withdrawal to be reported next week. All in all, our trading theme remains one in which a higher pricing environment, at least north of the $4.50 area, will be required through much of the spring period in order to begin enticing increased drilling activity and further displacement amongst utilities away from the gas and toward the lower priced coal."

Others see nuclear refueling as emerging as a supportive price driver. "[A] heavier than normal spring nuclear power plant maintenance and refueling season, which could boost power sector demand [for gas] by more than 1 Bcf/d and a tightened supply outlook from storage levels that have dropped below 1 Tcf for the first time since 2003, are likely to provide support for gas prices in the coming weeks," said Addison Armstrong of Tradition Energy. "Weather forecasts are little changed from yesterday, with below-normal temperatures expected across the East in the next five days, followed by a shift warmer during the last week of March before a return to below-normal temperatures in the early part of April."

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