Natural gas futures sat near even early Thursday as traders braced for potential market-moving impacts from the latest government inventory data and from the looming prompt-month expiration. Heading into its final day of trading, the February Nymex contract was up 2.3 cents to $4.300/MMBtu at around 8:45 a.m. ET. March was up 1.0 cent to $4.046.

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For the latest Energy Information Administration (EIA) storage report, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET, estimates pointed to a larger-than-average withdrawal, with major surveys suggesting a consensus pull of around 215 Bcf.

As of Wednesday a Bloomberg survey of eight analysts produced a range of withdrawal projections from 198 Bcf to 225 Bcf, with a median pull of 215 Bcf. The Wall Street Journal poll results averaged 215 Bcf as well, though the range of estimates was tighter. Reuters polled 17 analysts, whose estimates were as steep as 230 Bcf with a median draw of 216 Bcf. 

NGI modeled a 198 Bcf pull for the upcoming report, which covers net changes during the week ended Jan. 21. Last year, EIA recorded a 137 Bcf withdrawal from storage in the similar week, while the five-year average draw is 161 Bcf.

“It was colder than normal over the eastern half of the U.S., while warmer than normal over the western U.S.,” NatGasWeather said of temperatures during the EIA report week. “We expect a draw of 219 Bcf,” but estimating this week’s print is “tricky” given it includes the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

EBW Analytics Group senior analyst Eli Rubin placed consensus for the report at a withdrawal of around 214-218 Bcf.

“Any significant surprise…could drive notable price swings ahead of today’s contract expiration,” Rubin said. 

As for what the final day of trading for the February contract might bring, recent history shows prompt month contracts have tended to rally into expiry, Rubin noted.

“Natural gas contracts rolling off the board have gained an average 12.1 cents in 12 of the past 14 months on their final trading day,” the analyst said. “But any short-term gains may be quickly reversed after February rolls off the board. While support for March may relent seasonally absent a true storage adequacy threat, a falling end-of-winter storage trajectory has limited the extent of likely declines over the next month.”

As for the latest forecast trends, NatGasWeather observed colder trends from the American model for the first third of February. However, the European model showed a much warmer outlook during the Feb. 8-11 time frame, according to the firm.

This is “an important difference that needs resolving,” and traders “will be watching closely to see which is more correct in the midday data,” NatGasWeather added. “If the European model were to trend colder Feb. 8-11 to better match” the outlook from the American dataset, “the natural gas markets would certainly notice.”