• Natural gas futures slip again as forecasters eye mid-February for earliest returning cold
  • Exports to Mexico dip on holiday, but set to climb the remainder of week
  • Cash prices strong out West

After some early strengthening, natural gas futures fizzled out by midday Monday as weather models struggled to maintain any sustained cold weather. The March Nymex contract touched an intraday high of $1.880/MMBtu before going on to settle at $1.819, down 2.2 cents day/day. April slipped 2.4 cents to $1.862.

Warm, sunny skies made for weakness across most U.S. cash markets to start the week, but chilly storms out West helped lift the NGI Spot Gas National Avg. 10.5 cents to $1.715.

Otherwise tight supply/demand balances that have characterized the market over the past couple of weeks remained firmly intact on Monday, but weather continued to be uncooperative. Early Monday, small changes in the latest runs brought the American and European models “into very good agreement” regarding total forecast demand through the middle of February, according to Bespoke Weather Services. The firm saw more ridging at times around Alaska in the medium-range, but any cold was confined to the central/western states, with above-normal temperatures persisting in the East.

“This makes it difficult to get national demand any higher than near normal for a few days here and there, and means any weakening of the Alaska ridging would lead the forecast right back warmer,” Bespoke chief meteorologist Brian Lovern said.

The midday run of the Global Forecast System trended even warmer, losing several heating degree days (HDD) and most importantly, stalling cold air into the Great Lakes and Northeast, according to NatGasWeather. Much of the data maintains a rather bearish set up across the southern and eastern United States much of the next two weeks, but still with cold shots at times into the western, central and northern part of the country.

“But the theme has been to continuously stall the arrival of colder air into the Great Lakes and Northeast. What was once Feb. 5 when cold was to arrive was delayed to Feb. 10, and then to Feb. 12, and now the data stalled it again until Feb. 14-15,” NatGasWeather said. “The weather models just keep kicking the cold can down the road, like they’ve done all winter, essentially showing cold enough patterns at days 13-16, then losing hefty amounts of demand as these colder days roll into the six- to 12-day forecast.”

Genscape meteorologists expect national population-weighted HDDs will run warmer than normal throughout this week. Translated into demand, the firm’s Daily Supply & Demand model has demand averaging 98 Bcf/d Monday through Friday, topping out on Wednesday at 103 Bcf/d.

Balance data showed little change from Friday, with the market still looking quite tight as production levels remain relatively unchanged, along with liquefied natural gas intake remaining over 9.0 Bcf, according to Bespoke. Power burns from the weekend also looked healthy considering very low demand and increasing wind generation.

However, U.S. pipeline exports to Mexico fell through the weekend and were barely higher Monday, according to Genscape. The firm noted though that Monday was a holiday in Mexico, and volumes are expected to climb through the rest of the week.

Exports fell to as low as 5.14 Bcf/d and had rebounded to only 5.23 Bcf/d for Monday, Genscape data showed. The bulk of the declines have occurred on South Texas pipes, though volumes out of West Texas, Arizona and California are also down.

The conclusion of Monday’s holiday “should compel volumes to climb back into the 5.5 Bcf/d range for the rest of the week. Volumes could move higher next week as a warm front moves across the country, potentially generating cooling loads,” Genscape senior natural gas analyst Rick Margolin said.

Strong West

Early-week weather action out West lent support to regional cash markets on Monday, while otherwise mild temperatures in the eastern half of the country kept prices relatively steady.

A chilly, moisture-laden system has moved into the Pacific Northwest and was forecast to descend into California to start the week, boosting Pacific Northwest demand to 2.5 Bcf/d Monday after having spent the last two weeks down near 2.3 Bcf/d levels, according to Genscape.

“This system is expected to be cold enough to help build Pacific Northwest snowpack, which would portend some bearishness for summer gas,” Genscape analyst Joseph Bernardi said.

Although the Pacific Northwest has been receiving hefty amounts of moisture this winter, many of the systems have been relatively warm, resulting in precipitation falling as rain and instantly running off, according to Genscape. However, the last couple of systems have been colder, lifting Washington state snowpack levels into the 90%-of-normal range.

“That should continue to build this week,” Bernardi said.

Farther south, Sierra snowpack degraded during January. At the start of the month, California-statewide snowpack was 92% of normal. By the end of January, it had fallen to 72% of normal, according to Genscape.

“This week’s system should lift that number,” Bernardi said.

The system’s move into the Rockies could trigger another round of freeze-offs. Daytime highs in the Green River and Denver-Julesburg basins are forecast to run in the low 20s, with nighttime lows in the teens for the next three days, forecasts show.

Colorado Interstate Gas (CIG) posted a notice Monday warning of potentially strained operating conditions due to high demand and production disruptions. In January, Genscape estimates freeze-offs curtailed Green River production by about 0.2 Bcf/d through the entire month, and Denver-Julesburg production was curtailed by about 0.1 Bcf/d for 10 days at the start of January.

“This week’s system is expected to be cold and feature notable amounts of snow. Snow itself doesn’t cause freeze-offs, but can prolong them by impeding work crew access to impaired field sites,” Bernardi said.

Cash gains across the Rockies were rather uniform, rising mostly in the 20-cent range. Northwest S. of Green River spot gas jumped 19.5 cents to $1.740.

In California, PG&E Citygate rose 9.5 cents to $2.690, while SoCal Border Avg. jumped a far more substantial 54.5 cents to $2.355.

Stronger demand in downstream western markets provided some support to Permian Basin pricing, which fell to zero last week, partly due to regional pipeline maintenance choking back supply. On Monday, Waha rose 36.5 cents to average 45.0 cents.

Elsewhere in Texas, Houston Ship Channel next-day gas was down 4.5 cents to $1.795, while even smaller losses were seen in the southern part of the state.

In the Midcontinent, Southern Star cash climbed 14.0 cents to $1.625, while gains across the Midwest were capped at less than a dime at most pricing hubs.

On the East Coast, spot gas prices across Appalachia barely budged. In the Northeast, most markets ended the day in the black, with the sharpest increases seen in New England. Tennessee Zone 6 200L next-day gas climbed 28.0 cents to $2.090. Northeastern points along the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line, however, slipped less than a dime day/day.