With traders preparing to shift their attention to the latest Energy Information Administration (EIA) storage report, expected to show a lighter-than-average withdrawal, natural gas futures were down slightly in early trading Thursday. The March Nymex contract was off 2.0 cents to $1.841/MMBtu at around 8:40 a.m. ET.

Estimates have been pointing to a withdrawal in the upper 120s Bcf to lower 130s Bcf for this week’s EIA report, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET. A Bloomberg survey of nine analysts showed estimates ranging from 122 Bcf to 134 Bcf, with a median pull of 129 Bcf. A Reuters poll reflected a median draw of 131 Bcf. A Wall Street Journal poll of 11 analysts included a draw as low as 109 Bcf but averaged 127 Bcf. NGI projected a 125 Bcf withdrawal.

Last year, the EIA recorded a 228 Bcf withdrawal for the similar period, while the five-year average withdrawal is 143 Bcf.

“It was warmer than normal over the entire U.S.” during this week’s EIA report period, “although a tighter supply/demand balance and an easier-to-meet five-year average will only lead to a slightly smaller than normal draw,” NatGasWeather said. “Our algorithm expects a 134 Bcf withdrawal, to the bullish side.”

Analysts at EBW Analytics Group also said they’re anticipating a slightly larger draw from Thursday’s report.

As for the overnight weather data, NatGasWeather said the European dataset trended milder, dropping the demand it had added in the previous midday run.

“The weather data has been flip-flopping the past few days on how much cold air to expect into the northern U.S. Feb. 12-20, but it’s certainly disappointing the overnight European model trended back milder to lose all the demand it gained midday Wednesday,” the forecaster said. “...Here we are yet again with the colder pattern on the back end of the 15-day forecast not being convincing, just as it’s been all winter. This puts pressure on the EIA report to show a tighter balance to counter. But for a tighter balance to be fully realized, colder weather will need to come through for the second half of February.”

With the European weather data “continuing to yo-yo back and forth,” the market still lacks the level of cold in the forecast that will be needed to inspire a rebound in prices, the EBW analysts said.

“Bigger picture, there is not yet any sign of the type of sustained pattern shift needed to drive prices back toward $2.00,” the analysts said. “A period of colder weather is still expected to start Feb. 14,” but the projected gas-weighted heating degree days are expected to come in “only slightly above normal with signs of warmer weather returning on days 14 and 15.”

If midday model runs add to heating demand expectations, “gas prices could move up a few cents. At least for now, though, the odds of a sustained rally appear to be low.”

March crude oil futures were trading 9 cents higher to $50.84/bbl at around 8:40 a.m. ET, while March RBOB gasoline was up fractionally to $1.4909/gal.