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Midwest Paces Broad Gains Again; Futures Spike 18% Week-to-Week

Physical natural gas for weekend and Monday delivery continued to forge higher in Friday's trading. Points with connectivity to the Dawn Hub in western Ontario showed double-digit dollar gains and gains of 50 cents to $1 or more were common elsewhere. A couple of Marcellus points in the Northeast showed declines.

At the close of futures trading the March contract was able to hold $6 but was outgained by the April contract. March added 7.1 cents from Thursday to $6.135, marking a 92.1 cent, or 18% gain over the previous week’s $5.214 finish.

April natural gas rose by 15.6 cents to $5.012. April crude oil fell 55 cents to $102.20/bbl.

At the Dawn Hub gas for weekend and Monday delivery jumped a stout $12.38 to $28.03, and points upstream were pulled along accordingly. Not only is low Dawn storage a consideration, but weather forecasts showed the first signs of pending cold expected to hit the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest hard next week.

Forecaster Wunderground.com predicted that the Friday high in Detroit of 33 degrees would rise to 36 Saturday before dropping to 27 on Monday. The normal high in Detroit at this time of year is 37. Toronto's Friday peak of 39 was anticipated to drop to 33 Saturday and plunge to 21 on Monday; the seasonal high in Toronto is 32. Cleveland's 37 high on Friday was anticipated to reach 40 on Saturday before sliding to just 23 on Monday. The normal high in Cleveland is 14 degrees higher.

Ahead of the cold, forecasters called for freezing rain and sleet. "A relatively strong cold front will stretch from the Southeast to the Great Lakes on Friday, pushing an active weather system across several regions. Severe thunderstorms will be possible over Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland," said Wunderground.com meteorologist Kari Kiefer, "[M]ore moderate thunderstorms are expected to develop behind the cold front. Meanwhile, low pressure along the northern portion of the cold front will trigger rain, freezing rain and sleet across parts of the northern Mid-Atlantic and New England. This system will also bring a chance of spotty snow showers to the Great Lakes and the upper Midwest, while the southern Plains will stay mostly clear of wet weather."

Deliveries for the weekend and Monday on Alliance soared $14.40 to average $27.57, and gas at Northern Natural Ventura jumped $16.35 to average $29.92. Gas on Consumers came in $14.67 higher at $28.27, and on Michcon weekend and Monday parcels rose by $13.62 to $27.24. Packages on Northern Border Ventura vaulted $16.10 to $28.89.

Chicago Citygates for the weekend and Monday finished at $17.58, up a hefty $8.88, but well behind quotes on nearby pipelines. Moving gas from the Chicago Citygates to pricier points east is tricky. "If you have capacity on ANR and you can divert it, you can get it over to Michcon, and on Panhandle Eastern you can divert back and forth on the east side of the NIPSCO system. There is also a little bit of Vector [Pipeline] capacity that moves that way," said a Houston-based pipeline industry veteran.

Eastern locations also enjoyed hefty gains. Weekend and Monday gas at the Algonquin Citygates was quoted $6.96 higher at $21.62, and deliveries to Iroquois Waddington added $6.66 to $21.53. Deliveries to Tennessee Zone 6 200 L added $7.26 to $21.92.

Points more removed from the turbulent pricing of the Great Lakes and Northeast also rose. Gas on Dominion added 66 cents to $6.20, and deliveries on Tetco M-3 Delivery rose by 68 cents to $6.66. Gas on Transco Zone 6 into New York City added $1.16 to $7.49.

Futures traders saw the higher gains on the April contract at the expense of the March due to profit-taking on the volatile March-April spread. "I'm thinking there is a little unwinding going on," said a New York floor trader. "The volatility on that spread has sent some traders to the poorhouse," he said.

Weather forecasters see no change in the expected onslaught of cold air expected to hit the nation's mid-section next week and even hint at more cold beyond the two-week time frame. Commodity Weather Group President Matt Rogers said in the company's Friday morning forecast that "while we see some detail fluctuations here and there based on storm track details, the big picture remains fairly solid with a very impressive late-season cold outbreak next week that hits the Midwest the hardest with potential near or record-breaking cold conditions. The impressive consistency and consensus of all the models on the main pattern signature and its strong cold anomalies continue to strengthen our forecast confidence.

"And while the intensity of the cold relaxes a bit in the 11-15 day, we see new signs of stronger ridge rebuilding on the West Coast that would set the stage for more cold outbreaks beyond the 11-15 day range, which is consistent with the unusually persistently cold views of the European (last night) and CFS [NOAA Climate Forecast System] (this morning) weekly outlooks."

AccuWeather.com forecasts a high of 12 for Chicago next Thursday.

Analysts see March futures capable of going another 60 cents higher. "While this market saw heightened volatility following release of the EIA storage report, it appears that the short temperature views are still ruling as far as near-term price direction is concerned," said Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch and Associates in closing comments to clients. "The 250 Bcf indicated storage draw closely aligned with average industry expectations and looked dead neutral. Following some post-EIA profit-taking, nearby futures advanced back into the plus column with this resiliency reinforcing our opinion that fresh highs still lie ahead. While the low volume $6.40 highs established overnight might appear out of reach, we view this level as achievable with a possible brief run at the $6.68 region still on the table ahead of next Wednesday's expiry."

One school of thought is that the market has it all wrong and that current high prices predicated on a difficult storage rebuild are all wrong. Morgan Stanley analysts Adam Longson and Tai Liu told Barrons that "winter will, you know, end at some point. The move looks too far, too fast." They argue that the market has overestimated the cost to refill the national gas stockpile.

They say that U.S. replenishing capability is strong enough and that the commodity might even trade under $4/MMBtu by the third quarter.

The important components of their argument are demand headwinds from loss of heating demand, poor power load growth and renewables growth; gas-to-coal switching with higher prices; supply returning from freeze-offs and more supply coming online with new infrastructure; the fact that more of the restocking need is in the oversupplied East region; and potential supply creep outside the Northeast if high prices are sustained.

The case is built in part on the idea that supply bottlenecks and production freeze-offs have played a bigger role than most investors appreciate this winter.

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