Natural gas futures retreated after the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported a storage withdrawal that was less than what traders were anticipating.

The EIA reported a 178 Bcf withdrawal in its 10:30 a.m. EST release, which put inventories at 3,297 Bcf. February futures fell to a low of $2.085 following release of the storage data, and by 10:45 a.m. February was trading at $2.085, the low for the day and down 3.3 cents from Wednesday's settlement.

Prior to the release of the data, analyst estimates were in the 180 Bcf area. IAF Advisors was looking for a pull of 191 Bcf, and a Reuters survey of 21 traders and analysts showed a range from -172 to -191 Bcf with an average -184 Bcf. ICAP Energy calculated a 182 Bcf withdrawal.

Traders see important $2 support in sight, but "we are far enough from the $2 level at this time and I don't think we are in danger of seeing that," a New York floor trader told NGI.

The remainder of the petroleum complex, however, is highly bearish. "We've got seven months of heating oil under $1. It's all very negative," he said.

Longer term, analysts see expected seasonal warming taking hold of the market. "[T]he 178-Bcf net withdrawal was a match with the five-year average, and therefore neutral on a seasonally adjusted basis," said Tim Evans of Citi Futures Perspective. "But it was less than expected given the weather and so also suggests some weakening of the background supply-demand balance.

"We see some small chance for prices to rally on this week's cold and the larger net withdrawal it implies for the next round of numbers, but expect the market to remain more focused on the seasonal warming trend going into February."

Inventories now stand at 3,297 Bcf and are 629 Bcf greater than last year and 473 Bcf more than the five-year average. In the East Region 44 Bcf was pulled, and the Midwest Region saw inventories fall by 63 Bcf. Stocks in the Mountain Region were down by 7 Bcf and the Pacific Region was lower by 14 Bcf. The South Central Region shed 50 Bcf.

Salt cavern storage was down 19 Bcf to 345 Bcf, while the non-salt cavern figure fell 31 Bcf to 864 Bcf.