Northeastern physical gas values for Wednesday and Thursday delivery mostly ticked higher in Tuesday's trading as traders had to lock up volumes ahead of mind-numbing cold and snow expected to pound eastern energy markets. Mid-Atlantic points posted stout gains, but pipes serving the Boston area suffered declines. Futures traders took a big hit with February dropping 19.7 cents to $4.230 and March falling 18.9 cents to $4.193. February crude oil shed 87 cents to $98.42/bbl.

Prices jumped ahead of cold and snowy weather forecast for New York City and the Eastern Seaboard. "Cold air has returned to the New York area in time for New Year's Eve revelers on Times Square and will set the stage for a Thursday to Friday snowstorm," said meteorologist Alex Sosnowski. "Expect good travel weather Tuesday and New Year's Day. However, the cold may pose a challenge for those spending time outdoors. On New Year's Eve, temperatures will be falling into the 20s with [wind chill] temperatures in the teens."

New Yorkers may end up ringing in the new year shoveling snow. "Enough snow to shovel and plow is forecast to fall around the city," said Sosnowski. "The early estimate storm total snowfall in the five boroughs is between six and 10 inches. Locally higher amounts are possible in the suburbs to the east, north and west. The worst conditions are likely Thursday night, when the snow will be the heaviest, and winds and cold will cause the snow to blow and drift. Expect roads to become snow-covered and slippery."

Gas for Wednesday and Thursday delivery bound for New York on Transco Zone 6 vaulted $7.57 to $13.62, and deliveries on Tetco M-3 Delivery added 61 cents to $4.98.

Farther west, prices were steady to sharply lower in the Marcellus. Gas on Dominion added 3 cents, but Wednesday-Thursday gas on Transco-Leidy tumbled $1.85 to $1.75.

New England prices took a curious turn with points upstream of Boston jumping while Algonquin and Tennessee Zone 6 200 L fell. forecast that the high in Syracuse, NY, Tuesday of 25 would fall to 20 on Wednesday and 14 on Thursday with an overnight low Thursday of minus 6. The normal late-December high in Syracuse is 33. Boston's Tuesday high of 28 was anticipated to hold Wednesday before slipping to 25 Thursday. The normal high in Boston is 36 at this time of year.

Wednesday and Thursday deliveries at the Algonquin Citygates tumbled $5.88 to $18.77, and gas on Tennessee Zone 6 200 L fell $4.93 to $19.29. At Iroquois Waddington, however, next day deliveries surged $9.89 to $21.29.

Pipelines were also bracing for the cold weather. Tennessee issued an OFO for Zones 5 and 6 and cautioned against trying to compensate with over-deliveries at Marcellus points.

Futures traders watched prices crumble. "Prices were slowly coming off during the course of the day, but not on very great volume," said a New York floor trader. "It could be profit-taking and also the end of the year. Whatever people want to show or not show for tax purposes. This way it shows they got in or out of the market on Dec. 31."

Weather forecasts turned warmer overnight in the 11- to 15-day period. WSI Corp. in its morning outlook said, "[Tuesday's] forecast has trended much warmer across the Plains and Midwest when compared to the previous forecast. Confidence is considered near average standards as a result of very good consistency with regards to the subsequent runs of the European ensemble suite."

It added that risks to the forecast include a warmer "eastern two-thirds [of the country] under a highly anomalous building warm ridge. Risk is to the colder side across the interior West, Southwest early, followed by the Plains and Midwest late if another cold trough digs down across the region as advertised by a cluster of European ensemble members."

Analysts see colder temperatures prevailing through the first half of the month. "Cooler-than-normal temperatures and above-average storage withdrawals now look as though they will continue through the first half of January," said Tim Evans of Citi Futures Perspective in closing comments to clients on Tuesday.

"The estimates for DOE storage withdrawals for the week ended Dec. 27 may vary a bit more than usual, with the impact of the Christmas holiday on commercial and industrial demand as a complicating factor. Estimates for the week ended Jan. 3 spanning the New Year's Day break will show similar variation. Our model, which does factor in the five-year average pattern for the holidays, still translates into above-average storage withdrawals, but we recognize competing estimates may tell a different story."

Evans estimates a pull of 139 Bcf for the week ended Dec. 27 and 182 Bcf for the week ended Jan. 3. Last year on Dec. 27, 126 Bcf was withdrawn and the five-year average is for a 121 Bcf reduction.

Under those conditions, Evans sees the year-on-five-year deficit growing to 508 Bcf by Jan. 17, "with some chance for the trend to persist beyond that date. We think this further tightening of the market could support a move to the $5.00 area, although given the uncertainty of the forecast itself, we understand that the market will need to see additional evidence that our scenario is on track before accepting the bullish implications."

Evans is bullish on the market but is watching from the sidelines for a low-risk trade entry.