The ascent slowed down considerably, but prices extended this week’s rally into a third straight day Wednesday. As on the week’s first two trading days, awesome strength in energy futures and Southern air conditioning load continued to be primary drivers of cash market firmness.

A flat NGPL-Louisiana and several gains in single digits (all of Monday’s and Tuesday’s increases had been solidly in double digits) indicated that the bullish streak might be running out of steam, but generally prices rose between about a nickel and 45 cents Wednesday.

Weather-related load appears ready to recede, however. The freezing conditions that had been pervading the Pacific Northwest were due to be replaced by temperatures above seasonal averages Thursday, with western highs ranging from the 40s in Yellowstone National Park to the 90s in the desert Southwest, according to The Weather Channel (TWC). And stormy weather is predicted to cool off most of the South to highs in the 70s and 80s — a far cry from the 90s levels that caused rolling blackouts in Texas earlier in the week.

The Northeast and Midwest will continue to enjoy cool to mild temperatures, TWC said.

Weather-based price support may be fading, but the cash market can still count on prior-day futures strength for upward guidance. The natural gas screen was in the red during the cash trading session Wednesday, but later turned higher as Nymex’s petroleum-based products led the way higher again after government inventory reports that morning showed weekly declines in all product categories. Crude oil futures established yet another record in settling at $72.17/bbl, up 82 cents, while May natural gas tagged along for a gain of 18.4 cents.

The Gulf Coast continues to regain much-welcomed processing capacity with the resumption of full operations this week at the Venice Plant in the Mississippi River delta area south of New Orleans. The plant, which has capacity of about 800 MMcf/d, is operated and partly owned by Targa Midstream Services. Venice Gathering System, which feeds gas into the plant for treatment, said it had successfully completed a pressure test and returned its remaining hurricane-damaged sections back to service, and began taking nominations from all receipt points last Saturday.

For a Gulf Coast producer, the continued cash price strength had a simple basis: global oil tensions are driving up energy futures and cooling load in the South, while getting smaller, was still substantial. That pretty well summed up why this week’s strong price rally hasn’t quit yet, he said. Otherwise the market was fairly quiet and straightforward, he added.

Gulf of Mexico shut-ins related to last year’s Hurricanes Katrina and Rita totaled 1,333.51 MMcf/d as of Wednesday, based on reports from 45 companies to Minerals Management Service (MMS). That represented a decrease of 28.67 MMcf/d since the April 5 tally by MMS. Cumulative deferred production since Aug. 26, 2005 has reached 730.466 Bcf, or 20.013% of the Gulf’s normal annual output of about 3.65 Tcf, the agency said.

The National Weather Service predicts above normal temperatures during the April 24-28 workweek from the western Midwest through the Midcontinent and in the Plains, Rockies and all of the Pacific Northwest except southern Oregon. The agency looks for below normal readings along the East Coast everywhere east of a line running due south from western New York to the middle of the Florida Panhandle. It also said to expect below normal temperatures in southwest Arizona and all of California except the northern end and eastern edge.

Bentek Energy reported that its storage sample indicates an injection of 47 Bcf for the week ending April 14, which it said would maintain inventories at 15% above the five-year average. Reuters news service said its survey of 25 industry players found estimates ranging from 40 Bcf to 90 Bcf, with an average of 52 Bcf. Kyle Cooper of IAF Advisors made a final estimation of a 46-56 Bcf build, adding that the Good Friday holiday added “a great deal of uncertainty” to assessing last week’s injections.

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