Natural gas prices are poised to rebound in 2021, with Henry Hub spot prices on track to average $3.01/MMBtu for the year, nearly $1 higher than 2020 prices, according to updated projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

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In its first Short-Term Energy Outlook of the new year, published Tuesday, the agency offered up a forecast for improved economic activity and rising energy use in the year ahead after Covid-19 put a damper on both in 2020.

EIA’s macroeconomic assumptions, based on IHS Markit forecasts, include a projected 4.2% increase in U.S. real gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021, followed by a 3.8% increase in 2022. This would reverse the 3.5% decline in GDP observed in 2020. 

The rising GDP would contribute to an increase in total energy use in the United States over the next two years. After falling 7.8% in 2020, total U.S. energy consumption is set to increase 2.6% in 2021 and another 2.5% in 2022, according to EIA forecasts.

The $3.01 forecast for Henry Hub in 2021 would represent a marked improvement over 2020, when prices there averaged only $2.03. Henry Hub is expected to strengthen further in 2022, rising to $3.27, according to EIA.

The strengthening natural gas prices are expected to coincide with rising exports; domestic consumption, which averaged 83.1 Bcf/d in 2020, should ease lower in 2021 (down 2.8%) and 2022 (down 2.1%) as higher prices lead to less gas use in the power sector, forecasts show.

While natural gas fueled a 39% share of U.S. electric power generation in 2020, gas use is expected to drop to 36% in 2021 and 34% in 2022. EIA attributed the decline to both “significantly higher natural gas fuel costs and increased generation from renewable energy resources.”

EIA expects gas exports to rise from 6.5 Bcf/d in 2020 to 9.8 Bcf/d in 2021 before climbing further to 10.7 Bcf/d in 2022. The United States is forecast to export an average of 8.5 Bcf/d in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 2021. This is set to rise to 9.2 Bcf/d in 2022, the agency said.

“Forecast growth in U.S. LNG exports is supported by several factors, including a gradual post-Covid-19 recovery in global LNG demand in established markets, high winter LNG demand in Asia, and expansions in global LNG import infrastructure in existing markets with several new countries expected to become LNG importers in the next two years,” researchers said.

On the supply side, U.S. dry natural gas production fell 2.5% year/year to an average of 90.8 Bcf/d in 2020, and output is expected to slide further to an average of 88.2 Bcf/d in 2021 before rising to 89.7 Bcf/d in 2022.

Declining production should allow the market to deplete storage inventories to below the five-year norm by the end of the current withdrawal season, according to EIA.

[NGI’s natural gas price indexes have included trade data from both price reporters and the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) since 2008. Find out more about our price index data here.]

“EIA forecasts that declines in U.S. natural gas production this winter compared with last winter will more than offset the declines in natural gas consumption, which will contribute to inventory withdrawals outpacing the five-year average during the remainder of the winter,” researchers said. “…Forecast natural gas inventories end March 2021 at 1.6 Tcf, 12% lower than the 2016–20 average.”

As measures to contain the pandemic had a chilling effect on energy demand in 2020, one side effect was a decline in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the energy sector. EIA measured an 11.1% drop in energy-related CO2 emissions in 2020. Emissions are expected to increase by 4.7% in 2021 and by 3.2% in 2022.

“Even with growth over the next two years, forecast CO2 emissions in 2022 remain 3.9% lower than 2019 levels,” according to EIA.