U.S. natural gas prices could face pressure at the end of the heating season due to a lack of cold weather, but growing industrial demand and a surge in power plant retirements could offer some relief later in the year, a BNP Paribas analyst said Tuesday.
Teri Viswanath, BNP director of commodity strategy for natural gas, said there could be "real concern" on a lack of cold weather. "If we see inventories approaching 2 Tcf by the end of February, there probably is going to be a problem," she said. "Given production growth, an exit level of 1.7. Tcf of gas by end March is problematic" as producers begin to build storage levels over the summer.
As to whether gas prices could fall below $2.00/Mcf, Viswanath was unsure. It depends on where storage ends. If winter storage exceeds 2 Tcf, it's possible. However, as production continues to escalate, "the lowest price might even occur before winter ends."
High winter stocks may threaten the injection season. An "increased possibility" exists "that the industry will face physical challenges in managing excess supplies next summer," which would continue to limit short-term price gains.
Viswanath discussed the U.S. gas market outlook during a conference call with BNP's Harry Tchilinguirian, global head of commodity strategy, and senior oil analyst Gareth Lew-Davies. They offered their views on global oil markets.
The U.S. gas market will be "punished if we have a lot of storage" at the end of March, Viswanath said. "But already, we are seeing relatively significant fuel switching...We have a strong, structural demand story without fuel switching, which might lead to a tighter second half and stronger prices."
Because gas prices have remained relatively low, another catalyst for the market is rising industrial demand, particularly for ammonia and methanol production, which has grown at a faster clip than anticipated.
Most of the planned industrial projects are targeting beyond 2015, but "we expect industrial consumption to increase by 0.8 Bcf/d or 4% this year as a result of new chemical plants," Viswanath said. It's admittedly difficult to get a close read on the growth of industrial demand, "especially given the fact that 41 different industrial sectors tend to consume small amounts of gas...Relatively low priced gas has led to a steady increase in natural gas consumption from 2009 on..."
Another bullish sign for gas is expected on the massive amount of U.S. baseload power retirements, including four nuclear plants. Between now and the end of 2015, more than 15 GW of baseload power plant capacity is slated for retirement.
Cumulative retirements surpass all that took place in the prior decade, Viswanath said. Combined, the retirements could lead to 3.2 Bcf/d of gas demand.
Also on the horizon late this year are rising gas exports, partly in the form of liquefied gas exports. In addition, completing "major backbone pipeline projects" should enable increased takeaway capacity in Mexico.
"To provide the supplies necessary to meet growth in natural gas consumption and a rise in exports, producers will ultimately need to move into areas where the recovery of natural gas is more difficult and expensive, which leads to an increase in Henry Hub spot prices over an extended forecast period," according to BNP.
The question remains on whether the lack of infrastructure, to connect new sources of supply to the market, will usher in a higher price environment sooner than currently anticipated."
BNP's team is "very constructive for 2016 and onward for gas prices," Viswanath said. However, price strength isn't likely to come from production slowing.
Exploration and production companies may be limiting their capital expenditures this year on oil prices, but they are maintaining their gas production growth guidance. Drilling efficiencies and a backlog of drilled but uncompleted wells would stifle prices but grow output.
"We think U.S. gas production fueled by shale continues through 2015," Viswanath said. "Despite lower prices, we anticipate U.S. production continues to grow..."
Another concern for gas prices is the fallout from oil prices, she said. That fallout could lead to higher gas production as some operators consider ramping up rigs.
"Surprisingly, at least one company is looking at a fringe play in the Eagle Ford Shale," Viswanath said of potential gas growth. Also on the table is more Haynesville Shale development, which may "become more important" in 2015.