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Modest Weekly Price Changes Mask Important Refill Issues

Gone is the high volatility of winter trading, and for the moment traders can luxuriate in typical shoulder-season price moves characterized by changes of a few cents compared to the frequent multi-dollar moves of winter.  For the week ended April 4 the NGI National Weekly Spot Gas Average fell 27 cents to $4.49, and most regions experienced weekly moves of a nickel or more to over 50 cents, with the Midwest showing the greatest volatility, dropping 89 cents to $4.84.  Prices in the Northeast tumbled 57 cents to $4.30, and the Northeast was home to the greatest gainer, the Millennium East Pool, up 46 cents to $3.99 and the largest decline at Tennessee Zone 6 200 L, down $4.20 to $5.38.

The Midcontinent shed 24 cents to $4.47 and the Rocky Mountains slid 10 cents on the week to $4.38.

South Louisiana and California came in at declines of 4 cents to $4.36 and $4.72, respectively, and South Texas was flat at $4.30 with East Texas rising 2 cents to $4.38.

For the week May futures eased 4.6 cents to $4.439.

In Friday's trading, buyers were reluctant to aggressively seek incremental volumes in spite of weather forecasts calling for below-normal temperatures at some points. A nominal number of market points made it to the positive side of the trading ledger, but major eastern locations posted losses up to double digits. Gulf locations firmed for the most part. At the close of futures trading, May had eased 3.1 cents to $44.39 and June was down 3.2 cents to $4.467.

Futures traders described the day's activity as a "snoozer," with the range on the May contract held to less than 8 cents. "$4.40 is now near-term support and $4.50 resistance. Beyond that you are looking at $4.25 below and $4.75 above. We are still looking at the same numbers," said a New York floor trader.

Friday may have been a "snoozer," but underneath it lay an intense debate about storage refill and the likelihood of the industry being able to rebuild severely depleted working gas in time for next winter.

On Thursday, the Energy Information Administration reported a 74 Bcf withdrawal in the last storage report of the traditional November-March heating season. Traders will be keeping a close eye on presumed upcoming injections to see if the industry can "fill the cupboard" and minimize the impact that a repeat 2013-2014 polar vortex season might bring.

"If we can bring inventories back to 3.8 Tcf, we will do something the industry has never done before," said Tom Saal, vice president at INTL FC Stone in Miami. "I think in 2003 we put in an average of 77 Bcf per week, and that was the most we ever put in," he told NGI.

"People say there is more pipe around, but is the pipe in the right location? Most of the recent expansions were for long-haul gas, and it wasn't to put it into storage. As a futures broker, you look at the risk, and we will have to do something not done before. We may not be able to do that, and the market is not providing any financial incentive to store gas by the lack of forward carry.

"With 30 weeks in the injection season it will take injections averaging 100 Bcf per week to get back to 3.8 Tcf. The industry may question whether we need all that much gas in storage, but consumers and utilities will plan for a winter like we just had. I don't think people will feel very comfortable going into next winter with only 3.5 Tcf in the ground," Saal said.

For all intents and purposes, refilling storage to last year's 3.8 Tcf will require some heavy lifting. Surveying the storage landscape, Teri Viswanath, commodity strategist at BNP Paribas, said, "With the injection season now officially under way, it appears that the market is decidedly polarized about the pace of restocking ahead," she said. "This lack of consensus has resulted in range-bound trading for U.S. natural gas prices over the past month, with the front of the curve vacillating between $4.25 and $4.50/MMBtu."

She added that the current debate on whether equilibrium can be restored this injection season has launched the recent "tug-of-war" for gas prices. "For our part, we remain constructive on prices based on the expectation that the combination of limited infrastructure additions and merchant 'decontracting' will ultimately curb the build in inventories."

The analyst said with prices now trading at the upper level of the recent range, reliability concerns might be re-emerging. "The question remains on whether these investors remain steadfast during the stout injections that normally take place at the start of the season," she said.

With the traditional withdrawal season wrapped up, analysts at Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. Inc. (TPH) said "the path to 3.6 Tcf" by the start of the next heating season from the current 822 Bcf is possible but will require certain factors to fall in place. "We see it as a challenge, but one that the gas market can accomplish given normal weather and $4.50/Mcf gas prices through injection season. We're expecting $4.50/Mcf gas to incent[ivize] 3-plus Bcf/d of gas power gen demand switching back to coal, exceeding the modeled 2 Bcf/d needed to get to 3.6 Tcf of storage."

On the supply side, TPH expects production to grow 2 Bcf/d year over year, but that growth is largely back-end weighted. "Notably, we are not showing a return to November 2013 peak production until July 2014," TPH said. "Net imports are forecasted down y/y, dropping 0.5 Bcf/d (less from Canada, more to Mexico)...partially offsets production growth."

Forecasting demand, TPH believes that the 2.8 Bcf/d balance of the year decline over April to December last year is driven by gas-to-coal switching (-2 Bcf/d), and an assumed return to normal winter weather (-1.4 Bcf/d) (2013 was 7% colder than 10 yr. avg). "An increase in industrial demand provides a partial offset with an expected 600 MMcf/d y/y increase balance 2014. Note that the modeled -2 Bcf/d of power gen gas-to-coal switching is conservative vs. our expectations. At $4.50/Mcf natural gas prices, we actually see switching levels above 3 Bcf/d...we will be watching this piece closely."

Friday New England points proved to be the weakest as a warming trend was forecast along the Eastern Seaboard. Alex Sosnowski, meteorologist, said, "A warmer weekend is in store for New York City ahead of another batch of rain for early next week. The typical high for the city this time of the year is 58 F, [and] high temperatures both days will be within a few degrees of 60 F."

He said the "nicer of the two weekend days will be Sunday with sunshine and less wind. In the wake of locally drenching rain and spotty thunderstorms from Friday night, stiff winds from the west and northwest will bring dry air into the region on Saturday. A new storm forecast to brew near the Gulf Coast this weekend will swing northeastward early next week with a dose of drenching rain."

Boston's Friday high of 44 degrees was expected to warm to 56 on Saturday followed by a rise to 59 on Monday. The seasonal high in Boston this time of year is 52. New York City's high on Friday of 45 was seen making it to 62 on Saturday and easing to 58 on Monday. The normal high in New York for early April is 56. Washington, DC's high Friday of 62 was expected to ease slightly to 60 on Saturday and fall to 58 on Monday. The seasonal high in Washington, DC, is 62.

Weekend and Monday gas at the Algonquin Citygates shed 41 cents to $4.84, and deliveries to Iroquois Waddington were down 26 cents to $4.80. Gas tendered on Tennessee Zone 6 200 L fell 29 cents to $4.94.

The lofty spot prices in New England seen this winter may eventually be a thing of the past. An industry veteran said that Tennessee was building new pipe to connect its 200 Leg and 300 Leg as well as a whole new pipe that would take gas to Dracut, MA, from the Marcellus.

The veteran also noted the basis for the summer strip at the Algonquin Citygates was 61 cents -- "very high for this time of year."

Quotes in the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachia softened as well. Gas on Columbia TCO for the weekend and Monday eased 2 cents to $4.36, and deliveries to Dominion South shed 6 cents to $4.14. Gas on Tennessee Zone 4 Marcellus fell 15 cents to $3.64, and packages at Transco Leidy were quoted a nickel lower at $3.86.

Prices in the Mid-Atlantic also weakened. Tetco M-3 deliveries were seen at $4.31, down 5 cents, and packages on their way to New York City on Transco Zone 6 shed 11 cents to $4.31.

Gulf points bucked the overall market weakness and rose a few cents. Deliveries on ANR SE were flat at $4.40, and gas on Columbia Mainline was seen at $4.41, up 2 cents. Henry Hub parcels came in at $4.48, unchanged, but Tetco E LA rose by 3 cents to $4.39. Gas on Tennessee 500 L gained 3 cents to $4.44.

Thursday's near 11-cent advance in the face of expected storage figures has analysts looking for higher prices. "[Thursday's] assertive bullish response to a seemingly neutral EIA storage figure reinforces our expectations of a run at the $4.61 area, achievement of which could develop sooner rather than later," said Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch and Associates in closing comments Thursday to clients.

"Although [the] reported 74 Bcf withdrawal was 6 Bcf less than we had anticipated, and some 21 Bcf smaller than a year ago, we believe that the market was forced to take notice of another dramatic expansion in the deficit against averages that had associated with a plunge in supply to 822 Bcf. While this draw could prove to be the last of the season, the process of upsizing storage levels sufficiently to meet next winter's needs will be demanding a significantly higher price, in our view.

"Although production is exhibiting a strong rebound with a record pace likely developing this week, we feel that additional gains will be required. All in all, a bullish stance is still advised in this market. Despite the fact that Monday's selloff extended further than we had anticipated, we still suggest working this market strictly from the long side as we see additional gains to $4.61 as high probability with an ultimate rally to around $4.80 when extending a view out to beyond next week."

Addison Armstrong of Tradition Energy sees "traders eye[ing] moderating temperatures and prospects for decreasing heating demands. Gas prices have now rebounded more than 25 cents, or 6%, over the past couple trading days after hitting a 2.5-month low earlier during the week. The market is confronting storage levels that have dropped to an 11-year low and a heavier than normal nuclear power plant maintenance and refueling season.

"On the other hand, expectations of record production, plus limited temperature-linked demand during shoulder season could limit price rallies until the onset of summer air-conditioning load."

Injections have begun in earnest on the West Coast. Genscape reported that "California storage operators have been injecting gas into the ground in the past week. Storage injection is currently at 0.6 Bcf/d. With ample available storage capacity and California's price premium over Rockies and Canada, storage injection rate should be strong this summer. However, with the huge draw this winter, California inventory is currently 150 Bcf lower than the level of the previous two years."

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