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Cash Mixed; Spot Futures Reach Price Levels Not Seen Since Summer of 2011

Physical natural gas for weekend and Monday delivery on average nationally was flat in Friday's trading, hiding the fact that there were major weather-driven declines along the Eastern Seaboard and healthy gains at points positioned to move gas to the Midwest.

Some Northeast points dropped more than $2, and double-digit drops were common in the Mid-Atlantic. Rockies and Midwest pipelines, however, enjoyed strong gains as Chicago Citygate prices advanced. At the close of futures trading the January contract had notched a high at $4.492, a level not seen since the summer of 2011, before settling at $4.418, down 4.2 cents on the day. February natural gas fell 2.2 cents to $4.467, while February crude oil added 28 cents to $99.32/bbl.

Weekend and Monday temperatures as much as 15 to 20 degrees above normal knocked the socks off weekend and Monday demand. AccuWeather.com reported that Friday's high of 51 in New York City was expected to rise to 56 on Saturday and reach 60 by Monday. The normal high in the Big Apple this time of year is 42. Philadelphia's 55 on Friday was predicted to reach 62 on Saturday but ease to 59 on Monday, still 15 degrees above normal. In Washington, DC, the high Friday of 61 was anticipated to reach 64 Saturday and ease to 61 Monday. The typical mid-December high is 45.

Forecasters are calling for a wide swath of above-normal temperatures. "A southwesterly flow aloft from Texas to New England through the weekend assures unseasonably warm weather for most of the I-95 corridor," said Elliot Abrams, AccuWeather.com meteorologist. "There is a cold front from eastern Canada that will slide slowly south and stall in central New England. The front could jump back north on Sunday, but there is much uncertainty about temperatures." He added that weather models show a huge temperature difference in a short distance across northern and central New England.

Weekend and Monday deliveries at Transco-Leidy fell $1.12 to $2.20, and gas on Dominion shed 29 cents to $3.16. Gas on Tetco M-3 Delivered dropped 37 cents to $3.58, and gas headed for New York City on Transco Zone 6 skidded 54 cents to $3.51.

In Friday's trading the day's low price was registered by Tennessee Zone 4 Marcellus at $1.20, and according to a Houston-based marketer, the low price was not unexpected, "especially when gas gets turned back. It's going to be 60 degrees in New York. Demand has softened a lot for the weekend so prices moved quite a bit."

He noted that Tennessee Zone 4 Marcellus "is in a constrained area, and the existing infrastructure is there for the time being. Sometimes if shippers can't park gas on Stagecoach, it even gets worse."

The high price in the day's trading range was seen on Algonquin Citygates at $7, but quotes across New England slid on moderating temperatures as well.

Weekend and Monday gas at Algonquin tumbled $2.24 to average $5.85, and deliveries to Iroquois Waddington were flat at $4.89. Gas on Tennessee Zone 6 200 L dropped $2.74 to $5.66.

Those moving gas out of the Rockies and the Midwest into the Chicago Citygates enjoyed price gains. Gas for delivery to Chicago for the weekend and Monday rose a stout 23 cents to $4.76.

Gas on CIG rose by 12 cents to $4.34, and at the Cheyenne Hub weekend and Monday gas gained 9 cents to $4.38. Gas on Alliance rose 23 cents to $4.75, and packages at Northern Natural Ventura gained 24 cents to $4.73.

Futures traders are optimistic. "The $4.50 level was kind of a marquee price. It's time for the bulls to blow through it or shut up. I'm thinking in the realm of things we will trade through it," said a New York floor trader.

Market bulls following the fundamentals are predicating their trading on more cold air sliding south from Canada within the next two weeks. WSI Corp. in its Friday morning 11- to 15-day outlook shows a broad pattern of above-normal temperatures extending west of an arc extending from southern New England to Indiana to Louisiana and east of the Great Basin.

"[Friday's] forecast is a bit cooler in the central U.S., [and] forecast confidence remains slightly above average into the 11-15 day period with good model agreement and low ensemble member spread. Again, the morning's forecast is a bit colder than most ensemble guidance, but the key hemispheric signals remain in place for at least one more arctic shot to drop down from Canada during the first week of January."

Analysts see a continuing increase in storage deficits working to drive the market higher. "With below-normal temperature views now stretching into the New Year, the dynamic of deficit expansion remains well entrenched as a bullish price driver that will likely maintain a $4 handle in nearby gas pricing through the first quarter of next year," said Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch and Associates in a Friday morning note to clients.

"With some of the temperature views showing cold patterns stretching well into some southern regions, additional production freeze-offs may also need to be discounted. While we had expected a sizable upswing in imports to provide some offset to last week's bullish weather factor, this development appeared minimal within [Thursday's] stats. Meanwhile, we still view the open interest configuration as significantly out of synch with increasingly bullish fundamentals as will likely be indicated in COT [commitment of traders] guidance to be released later [Friday]."

Arctic shots or not, at least one pipeline is expected to be maxed out for the remainder of the winter. According to industry consultant Genscape on Friday, "Algonquin City Gate continue[s] to be the biggest mover in North American gas markets. The weekly price average increased by $18.4/MMBtu this week. Prices spike whenever cold weather induces greater demand imports are maximized. With no new infrastructure expansions, pipeline capacity constraints continue this winter. Algonquin has been flowing gas northward at capacity since late October and we project this path to be at capacity for the rest of the winter."

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