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Last Gasp For Physical Market Bulls? April Called 2 Cents Higher

April natural gas is set to open 2 cents higher Thursday morning at $2.79 as traders look forward to what may be the last blast of weather-driven turmoil in the cash market and a set of stout government withdrawal figures. Overnight oil markets were narrowly mixed.

Observers keeping track of daily demand suggest that Thursday may be the last day of super-high demand, and by extension hyper-elevated prices in portions of the physical market. "Demand in the Midwest peaks today at 15.7 Bcf/d," said industry consultant Genscape in a Thursday morning report. "Forecast highs in Chicago and Detroit are expected to remain 10-15 degrees F below normal through tomorrow, but warmer than today and warming through the weekend into next week.

"Genscape's demand forecast for the region shows daily declines through the weekend, and just a moderate bounce back up on Monday to just above 13 Bcf/d. As the cold front works its way eastward, Genscape's New England demand forecast peaks [Friday] at 3.99 Bcf/d. Appalachia and SEMA [Southeast Mid-Atlantic] demand also peak tomorrow at 21.74 Bcf/d and 19.58 Bcf/d, respectively."

With just five weeks to go in the traditional gas storage withdrawal season, analysts will have to factor in an outsized storage pull as reports of well freeze-offs are likely to impact Thursday's Energy Information Administration (EIA) figures.

Estimates for Thursday's storage withdrawal report are coming in almost double those of the five-year average. Houston-based IAF Advisors is looking for a 228 Bcf decline, and a Reuters poll of 23 traders and analysts resulted in an average 222 Bcf with a range of 195 Bcf to 225 Bcf. Last year 144 Bcf was withdrawn and the five-year average is 115 Bcf.

Bentek Energy's flow model calculates a withdrawal of 224 Bcf. The firm said much of the increased withdrawal is due to well freeze-offs in the Producing Region. "The sustained temperatures in the Producing Region caused freeze-offs that cut supply by more than 1.5 Bcf/d compared to the previous week, with the Producing Region accounting for about 1.0 Bcf/d of the total supply loss," the company said.

Market technicians are circumspect about whether recent price action is indicative of a market putting in a bottom. "Is a bottom forming?" queried Brian LaRose of United ICAP in closing comments Wednesday to clients. "If so the bulls need to provide evidence of such. To do that bulls need to start by shifting the technicals in their favor and clearing resistance. First up, the wide spread cluster of hurdles stretching from $3.034 to $3.494. Until and unless these levels can be exceeded the case for bottoming action is pure speculation."

In overnight Globex trading April crude oil gained 11 cents to $51.64/bbl and April RBOB gasoline dropped a penny to $1.9190/gal.

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