The return of moderate air conditioning load to much of the South, along with expectations that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) will be reducing production estimates through last year in its revised EIA-914 report methodology Thursday, likely were the chief basis for flat to slightly higher quotes at nearly all points Wednesday.

The previous day’s drop of 4.6 cents by May futures, along with temperatures starting to approach more spring-like conditions again in northern market areas following an early-week cooldown, certainly did little to support the physical market.

A Florida citygate gain of a little more than 15 cents was conspicuous among overall prices that ranged from essentially unchanged to about a nickel higher. Only a few locations recorded losses of 3-5 cents or so.

SoCalGas did not send out its notice of a high-linepack OFO for Wednesday until early that morning (see Transportation Notes) and as of late Wednesday afternoon had not said whether the OFO would extend into Thursday. But it was enough for the SoCal citygate and Southern California border to see two of Wednesday’s rare price retreats.

The cash market can count on modest screen support Thursday after May futures ended their prompt-month contract reign with an increase of 5.5 cents (see related story).

The Rockies tended to register most of the day’s modest gains as lows on either side of freezing will return to the region Thursday following a period in which moderately cool springtime conditions prevailed. The desert Southwest, while also cooling off, will stay moderately warm at most locations, while most of the rest of the West will be chilly to cool.

It’s pretty likely that quiet air conditioners will be turned on in the South as forecast highs will be on either side of 80 at most locations Thursday. Meanwhile, very little heating load can be expected to remain in the Northeast and Midwest as their highs are expected to reach the upper 50s to upper 60s.

Less than a month into the traditional storage injection season, Southern Natural Gas is already up to half full. Of the total 60 Bcf working gas capacity at its two facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi, 30.1 Bcf, or 50% of capacity, was stashed away as of April 22, Southern said. That compares with 37.4 Bcf (62%) on April 23, 2009 and 24.8 Bcf (41%) on April 24, 2008.

A Texas-based marketer said he expects prices to be “up a little bit” in the daily market Thursday, largely due to the screen’s moderate firmness. He thought short-covering was the chief driver of the futures uptick, which he said is not unusual for monthly settlement days.

The screen gain also appeared to support a bit more strength in May bidweek physical basis and fixed prices Wednesday, the marketer continued. He estimated May’s Chicago citygate index at $4.32, which would represent a fairly large jump from the $4.00 recorded for April.

The National Weather Service (NWS) looks for above-normal temperatures during the May 3-7 workweek everywhere (except for the southern third of the Florida peninsula) south of a line generally running to the west-southwest from the New York City metro area before curving more to the southwest through the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas into southwest New Mexico and West Texas. In its six- to 10-day forecast posted Tuesday afternoon, NWS predicted below-normal readings throughout the Pacific Northwest and as far east as northern Minnesota, extending southward into the northeastern half of California, virtually all of Nevada and the southern sections of Arizona and New Mexico. The agency also expects such conditions in Maine and the eastern edge of New Hampshire.

Credit Suisse’s Teri Viswanath said she expects the Energy Information Administration (EIA) to report an 80 Bcf storage injection for the week ending April 23. “Record-breaking storage injections in April would enable the industry to meet or surpass last year’s end-of-season levels,” she added.

However, Viswanath said, “the real test for natural gas prices” will likely occur Thursday when EIA releases both the Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report and the Monthly Natural Gas Gross Production Report, also known as the EIA-914 report. “While we think that the EIA storage release might come in higher than expected, possible reductions in the EIA-914 data will likely put a stop to any major [futures] sell-off this week.”

Other analyst estimates for the storage build to be reported Thursday included 69 Bcf by Cameron Horwitz of SunTrust Robinson Humphrey; 76 Bcf by Ron Denhardt of Strategic Energy & Economic Research; 77 Bcf by Kyle Cooper of IAF Advisors; and 79 Bcf by Stephen Smith of Stephen Smith Energy Associates.

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