Cash natural gas prices held steady on average Thursday with most traders electing to get deals done ahead of the morning inventory report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The East and Northeast did suffer some outsize losses, but that was not enough to affect the overall average. Midwest prices added a couple of cents, and Gulf prices were 1 to 2 pennies higher. Southern California was steady to lower and northern California was steady to higher. The EIA reported a withdrawal of 145 Bcf, much larger than what the market was expecting, and prices took off as soon as the number was released. At the close of trading, April had gained a stout 13.2 cents to $3.812 and May was up by 13.0 cents to $3.848. April crude oil added 51 cents to $93.03/bbl.

“I guess if you see what you have and you know what you need, you do your trading beforehand and don’t try to play the market,” a Midwest utility buyer said.

The buyer said his company’s loads were beginning to taper off, but “we are having a really good March. Our sales are good, and in the first six days of March, we sold more than half of what we did in March last year. We’ll have a warm day Thursday and tomorrow, but it’s cooling down to more normal temperatures next week.”

The buyer added that his company was looking for continued strong March sales, “and that helps getting storage cleared out, but it looks like our low prices will be gone if storage gets cleared out. It makes me think that summer storage injection prices will be a little on the high side,” he said.

Forecaster predicted near-term temperatures in the Midwest would be close to seasonal norms. Chicago’s Thursday high of 43 was expected to rise to 45 Friday and reach 46 by Monday. The normal high this time of year in the Windy City is 46. Des Moines, IA’s high Thursday of 50 was forecast to ease to 48 on Friday and drop to 37 by Monday. The seasonal high in Des Moines is 48. Omaha, NE, was anticipated to see its Thursday high of 55 jump to 64 Friday before sliding to 37 as well on Monday. The normal high in Omaha is 50.

The National Weather Service in Omaha said “southerly flow continues overnight ahead of a wind shift that is expected to move into the region on Friday. Colder air lags significantly behind the wind shift…thus Friday is expected to be another gorgeous day with increasing clouds and warm temperatures.”

Quotes for gas delivered Friday to Northern Natural Gas Ventura added 4 cents to $3.83, and deliveries on Alliance gained 2 cents to $3.88. At the Chicago Citygates, next-day deliveries rose 2 cents to $3.88 also, and at Demarcation gas for Friday gained about 3 cents to $3.81. Farther south and west, next-day deliveries on NGPL Amarillo rose a couple of pennies to $3.71.

Prices in the East and Northeast weakened. At the Algonquin Citygates gas for Friday delivery dropped 7 cents to $8.62, yet packages into Iroquois Waddington rose 2 cents to $5.74. On Tennessee Zone 6 200 L next-day gas tumbled 33 cents to $8.44.

Gas bound for New York City on Transco Zone 6 shed 17 cents to $4.00, and deliveries on Tetco M-3 lost 7 cents to $3.96. Gas on Dominion was unchanged at $3.82.

Futures traders see the market poised to test a major pricing point. “I contend that the $3.80 to $4.80 trading range that natural gas had been in from June 2010 to August 2011 represented a major basing point. Then we had the sell-off that started in August, September of 2011 and that lasted all of last year,” said David Thompson, executive vice president at Powerhouse, a Washington DC-based trading and risk management firm.

“We fell down to $3.10 and then have rallied back up to $3.80. We are now overbought on the RSI [Relative Strength Indicator], we are entering a shoulder season, volatility has blown out, and I’m not so sure if it doesn’t break through [$3.80] shortly, we will have another counterattack to the downside.”

Forecasters see little chance that in the next two weeks the pervasive Atlantic blocking pattern will diminish. Commodity Weather Group in its 11- to 15-day outlook shows what might be considered an ideal pattern for market bulls: an above-normal Southern California and desert Southwest and below-normal temperatures across an expanse north and east of a line from Montana to Georgia.

“In what is now the longest blocking event of the 2012-2013 winter season, we continue to see stronger model support for a variable, cold-prevailing pattern over the next two weeks,” said Matt Rogers, president of the firm. “The Pacific still offers some intermittent variability to the situation, but the big ridging pattern over the North Atlantic, eastern Canada, and up to the North Pole continues to be a significant pattern influencer in keeping the Midwest, East, and sometimes the South leaning to the colder side.

“The South’s bigger risk (including Texas) for stronger cooling again appears to be in the days 10-12 as we track a stronger cold push potential during that range. We are still forecasting impressive Western heat in the short range with low 90s in Burbank today (they hit 93F yesterday) and low 90s in Phoenix before cooling returns this weekend.”

Thursday’s release of storage figures gave traders new data to hone season-ending inventory estimates. Computer-driven trading dominated the period just before and just after the release of the data, but once the computers had finished, traders were looking at both a greater storage deficit to last year and a leaner surplus to the five-year averages.

Last year, just 66 Bcf was withdrawn from storage at this time, and the five-year average for this week in March is for a 74 Bcf pull. For the week ended March 8, the figures look to be nearly double those levels. The range is considerable. Ritterbusch and Associates is looking for a withdrawal of 128 Bcf, and United-ICAP calculates a hefty 143 Bcf decline. A Reuters poll revealed an average 134 Bcf, and Bentek Energy was looking for 139 Bcf.

Last week, the analysts at Energy Metro Desk (EMD) were not “feelin it” that there might be a surprise in the EIA figures, but they were 15 Bcf wide of the actual 146 Bcf figure.

This week was deja vu all over again. “[W]e’re not feelin’ it, again,” said John Sodergreen, editor. “We don’t smell a surprise. But we didn’t smell one last week either and see where that got us? We think that EIA will atone for its sins of March 7 with a modest shaving of what we might have seen; say, 131-134 Bcf.” The EMD survey came in at an average 135 Bcf.

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