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U.S. Natural Gas Output Proving Resilient; Analysts Reduce Price Forecasts

Domestic natural gas supplies have been declining but production has a lot more staying power than expected, which should keep the lid on prices through the year, analysts said.

Jefferies LLC equity analyst Jonathan D. Wolff and his team on Tuesday said domestic gas output appears to have peaked after falling for two consecutive months. In addition, they see limited growth over the near term because of continuing infrastructure constraints in the Northeast and reduced associated gas production.

However, the long-term New York Mercantile Exchange outlook was cut 25 cents to $4.00/MMBtu because "more resilient" gas production than expected and a more conservative outlook for liquefied natural gas exports. Slowing Northeast supplies would be a "major bullish factor" over the long-term, Wolff said.

"The Northeast has experienced a multi-year period of rapid growth growing from just 2 Bcf/d to 20 Bcf/d in five years. Recent growth has been largely helped by reversals of existing brownfield pipelines (from the Northeast to the south and west). But the next phase of growth will require greenfield pipeline construction with longer lead times and regulatory risk."

Jefferies analysts think gas supply likely has rolled over from the peak of 73 Bcf/d to about 72 Bcf/d, based on pipeline scrapes. Additional growth should be limited, with 2016 and 2017 representing "gap years," as Northeast gas production stutters to 1.5 Bcf/d from 3.5 Bcf/d.

BMO Capital Markets analysts said this week gas prices this year had been been "uninspiring...and we do not see anything that will change that." Analyst Randy Ollenberger and his colleagues said a colder-than-normal winter failed to increase Henry Hub prices through the $3.00/Mcf level as production growth more than offset demand, allowing the 2014 storage deficit to be eliminated.

"For the balance of the year, the drop in the U.S. oil rig count could result in lower levels of associated gas production, but that is not likely to be enough to materially firm up North American prices, in our view," Ollenberger wrote. "We now anticipate that U.S. working gas in storage will exit the summer injection season at roughly 3.8 Tcf, which is roughly in line with the five-year average. Accordingly we believe prices will be range-bound at $2.25-3.00/Mcf."

BMO is even less inspired by Western Canadian gas prices.

"The outlook for Western Canadian natural gas prices is mildly more negative," Ollenberger said. The reversal of the Rockies Express Pipeline (REX) beginning in August is set to create an incremental 1,200 MMcf/d of east-to-west flow capacity, adding to the existing 600 MMcf/d capacity (see Daily GPI,July 1).

"The REX reversal will...compete with some Canadian exports" to supply the Midwest, BMO analysts said. "In addition, Western Canadian production has continued to grow year over year despite weaker commodity prices. This has erased the storage deficit and supports our view that the spread between Henry Hub and AECO will average 50-60 cents/Mcf in 2015, compared to only 22 cents in 2014."

Topeka Capital Markets (TCM) also reduced its gas price outlook this week. Analyst Gabriele Sorbara said in a note to clients 2Q2015 Henry Hub prices were reduced by 1.1% to the bidweek actual of $2.67/MMBtu from a previous assumption of $2.70. Full-year gas price assumptions were cut by a penny to $2.94/MMBtu.

Last month Barclays Capital analysts said they expect to see a brief bull run this summer for gas (see Daily GPI,June 29). "The bulls had better not blink though, because the fundamentals won't stay in their favor for long," analyst Michael Cohen wrote. "Northeast production additions in 4Q2015 will push the market back into oversupply and leave it waiting for signs of incremental demand growth in 2016."

Jefferies, BMO and TCM also revised their outlooks for crude oil. Jefferies revised U.S. oil production forecasts higher "given $13 billion in equity deals and myriad debt financings since February. Based on recent May data, oil production is running a good deal higher than expected."

Jefferies updated its 21-basin supply model for recent results, with total supply down slightly for 2015. It now is modeling a gain in U.S. output of 25,000 b/d in 2015 versus the 2014 exit, compared with a previous estimates of minus 300,000 b/d in February, minus 250,000 b/d in April and minus 150,000 b/d in June.

BMO expects crude oil prices to remain "relatively range-bound over the balance of the year" at the $55-65/bbl for Brent and $50-60/bbl for West Texas Intermediate (WTI).

"Positive influences include the fact that petroleum product demand has been relatively strong, particularly in the United States, and the growth in U.S. crude oil production has slowed," Ollenberger said. "On the negative side, crude oil inventories remain at very high levels and the backlog of uncompleted wells has yet to be drawn down. Potentially more worrisome is the fact that OPEC production appears to be increasing. Saudi Arabia continues to increase production and is now producing at the highest level ever, while Iraq has also achieved record levels production and Iran could potentially add as much as 1 million b/d of production."

TCM's Sorbara also adjusted the 2015 WTI oil price assumption to $59.13/MMBtu from $58.39.

Many U.S. oil producers were counting on rising oil prices and continued capital markets activity to maintain production in the second half of 2015 and produce "meaningful" growth in 2016, Wolff said.

"But we think a growth rebound will be difficult to achieve amid weak oil prices, high relative debt levels and the markets growing 'fatigue' to fund budget holes through equity issuances."

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