With traders preparing to shift their focus to the latest Energy Information Administration (EIA) inventory data, and with the weather outlook largely unchanged overnight, natural gas futures were trading slightly higher early Thursday. The February Nymex contract was up 1.1 cents to $2.131/MMBtu at around 8:40 a.m. ET.

Market observers are expecting a well-below-average withdrawal for the EIA storage report, which is scheduled for a 10:30 a.m. ET release.

Projections have been pointing to a withdrawal just shy of the triple-digit mark for the week ended Jan. 10. A Bloomberg survey showed a median estimate for a 93 Bcf pull, with estimates ranging from minus 84 Bcf to minus 101 Bcf. A Reuters survey showed a 95 Bcf pull, with a range of minus 87 Bcf to minus 102 Bcf.

Intercontinental Exchange EIA Financial Weekly Index futures settled Wednesday at a 94 Bcf withdrawal. NGI’s model predicted a pull of 106 Bcf.

Last year, EIA recorded an 82 Bcf withdrawal for the similar week, and the five-year average is a withdrawal of 184 Bcf.

“It was much warmer than normal over most of the country, especially the Midwest and East,” NatGasWeather said of this week’s EIA report period. “Our algorithm predicts a draw of 93 Bcf, in line with surveys.”

As for the overnight weather data, the forecaster observed “only slight changes” to the overall outlook.

“Timing of major weather features to impact the U.S. remains on track, with a strong cold shot arriving late this weekend and early next week for a swing to strong national demand” after “three straight weeks of exceptionally warm and bearish weather,” NatGasWeather said. “However, there’s still a mild break to follow late next week into the following week before another strong cold shot returns to the northern U.S. Jan. 28-31.”

The upcoming cold shots “are fairly impressive compared to what we’ve seen this winter, but it’s the milder break between that makes the pattern lose its bullish luster.”

The frigid temperatures in the forecast could help to “stabilize” the market in the near-term, according to analysts at EBW Analytics Group. Even with a number of warmer days in the mix, for the next two weeks (Friday through Jan. 30) gas-weighted heating degree day totals remain on track to come in “slightly cooler than normal, during the coldest part of the winter,” they said.

“The accompanying rise in demand could help to stabilize prices briefly, but the longer prospects for natural gas remain bearish,” the EBW analysts said.

February crude oil futures were trading 8 cents higher at $57.89/bbl at around 8:40 a.m. ET, while February RBOB gasoline was trading fractionally higher at $1.6435/gal.