Amid a number of “variables in play” in the natural gas market early Wednesday, most notably the imminent threat of Hurricane Laura bearing down on Texas and Louisiana, prices strengthened in early trading. The September Nymex contract climbed 4.5 cents to $2.534/MMBtu at around 8:40 a.m. ET.

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As of 8 a.m. ET Laura was 280 miles south-southeast of Lake Charles, LA, and about 290 miles southeast of Galveston, TX, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Laura, at Category 3 status, had strengthened into a major hurricane, with “potentially catastrophic storm surge, extreme winds and flash flooding expected along the northwest Gulf Coast tonight.” It was predicted to become a Category 4 hurricane, the NHC said.

Pointing to a hurricane-induced decline in liquefied natural gas (LNG) feed gas demand, from recent highs around 5 Bcf/d down to about 3 Bcf/d as of Tuesday, analysts at Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. (TPH) said they estimated 1-3 Bcf/d of “short-term looseness” resulting from Laura.

Depending on the duration, this “is a relatively minor blip from a macro perspective, but could put added pressure on tight South Central storage balances,” the TPH analysts said.

In addition to Cheniere Energy Inc.’s Sabine Pass terminal temporarily suspending operations, the analysts said they “wouldn’t be surprised to see the remaining roughly 1.2 Bcf/d at Cameron go to zero in the near-term as well. This would put about 3 Bcf/d of LNG offline, more than offsetting the roughly 2 Bcf/d of production hit, with potential further losses from Gulf Coast industrial and power demand.”

According to TPH calculations, five-year average builds the rest of the injection season would leave South Central stocks at 1,426 Bcf, or 11 Bcf below capacity.

“For further context, storage has added 28 Bcf versus the five-year over the past three weeks,” the TPH team said. “With Midwest and East storage facing their own challenges, we see limited ability to push gas back into those markets, meaning regional storage could be a final hurdle to clear for 2020 gas pricing.”

Bespoke Weather Services noted production estimates as of early Wednesday showing output now down 3 Bcf/d from last week’s levels, mostly attributable to shut-ins from Laura. The firm estimated LNG volumes at 2.75 Bcf/d.

“The storm appears headed right for Cameron as a Category 4 hurricane, and will affect Sabine as well,” Bespoke said. “We shall see how well the facilities hold up, with this being their first major test.”

Looking at the 15-day weather outlook, Bespoke said guidance hasn’t shifted much over the past couple days in terms of projected demand.

“Peak national heat remains the next three days, although we are expecting the pattern to stay in hotter-than-normal mode as a whole on into the month of September,” the firm said. “Hotter Septembers have become very common the last few years, and we do not expect this year to deviate.”

Price movements “could be erratic” ahead of the expiration of the September contract Thursday, which will also coincide with the latest Energy Information Administration storage report. “We feel the market is overdue for some pullback, but with all these variables in play…we are neutral and have lower confidence,” Bespoke said.

October crude oil futures were down 12 cents to $43.23/bbl at around 8:40 a.m. ET, while September RBOB gasoline was off about 5.5 cents to $1.3412/gal.