January natural gas was set to open about 8 cents lower at around $3.10 Thursday on some warmer overnight runs in the weather models.
Meanwhile, the market was awaiting the 10:30 a.m. EDT release of the Energy Information Administration's (EIA) storage report, with traders and analysts predicting a smaller withdrawal for the week ended Nov. 24 versus year-ago and five-year levels.
The January contract had gained three consecutive days on weather models growing increasingly confident in cold weather moving through starting next week, but prices ran out of steam on the overnight data.
"After numerous runs in a row trending colder, the latest data trended a little warmer, but still remained quite cold overall," said NatGasWeather.com in a morning note to clients. "...Specifically, the Global Forecast System weather models were a little milder for next week and also Dec. 11-14. The European model was colder for next week, but then a little milder Dec. 11-14."
In the nearer-term, the firm said "until cold colder conditions arrive next week, demand will be exceptionally light through the weekend, as much of the country experiences milder than normal conditions...cold air will arrive over the West this weekend, with frigid sub-freezing temperatures then set to sweep across the Midwest and Plains during the middle of next week" and reach the East by Thursday and Friday.
Predictions for Thursday's storage report from EIA show the market anticipating a third straight withdrawal, albeit a potentially bearish pull versus the year-ago and five-year figures.
A Reuters survey of traders and analysts showed on average a 37 Bcf withdrawal for the week, with responses ranging from -28 Bcf to -54 Bcf. Last year 43 Bcf was withdrawn, and the five-year average for the period is a withdrawal of 47 Bcf.
Kyle Cooper of ION Energy expected a 33 Bcf withdrawal, while Stephen Smith Energy Associates was calling for a withdrawal of 41 Bcf, lower than an original estimate for a 45 Bcf withdrawal. PointLogic Energy models were predicting a 35 Bcf withdrawal.
From a technical perspective, analyst Brian LaRose of ICAP Technical Analysis said following Wednesday's close that it marked "another constructive day for the bulls. But there is no time to celebrate. Natural gas has a densely packed cluster of resistance stretching from $3.257 to $3.366 that requires immediate attention. And just above that is another narrow band of resistance at $3.431 to $3.475 for the bulls to contend with.
"Only if these hurdles can be bettered will we have green light to raise the bar further,” LaRose said. “Bulls should proceed cautiously."
January crude oil was set to open higher Thursday, gaining about 50 cents to trade around $57.80/bbl. December RBOB Gasoline was up about 2 cents to $1.7539/gal.