U.S. natgas futures extend gains despite milder weather outlook
* Front month well above recent 3-month spot low * Above-normal nuclear outages, near-term cold support * Record production, long-term milder weather to limit upside * Coming up: Baker Hughes gas drilling rig data Friday By Eileen Houlihan NEW YORK, Jan 18 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures edged higher early on Friday, extending gains for a second straight day and the sixth time in seven sessions, backed by near-term cold weather in the East and a supportive weekly inventory drawdown. But with temperatures expected to moderate in the next week or so and by early next month, most traders expect limited upside. As of 9:03 a.m. EST (1403 GMT), front-month February natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at $3.525 per million British thermal units, up 3.1 cents, or just under 1 percent. The front month contract is up more than 12 percent in the past six sessions, after falling in early January to $3.05, a contract low and the lowest mark for a spot contract since late September. The latest National Weather Service six-to-10-day forecast issued on Thursday trimmed further the area of below-normal temperatures to just a small portion of New England, with mostly above-normal readings for the remainder of the country. ANOTHER BIG STORAGE DRAW, BUT STOCKS ABOVE AVERAGE Thursday's gas storage report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed inventories fell last week by 148 billion cubic feet, above industry expectations for a 136-bcf draw. Declines have beat industry expectations for the past three weeks, with last week's 201-bcf draw beating last heating season's peak draw. Traders said the data reflects what could be some permanent underlying growth in demand this year as utilities switch from coal to cheaper gas for power generation. Despite the large draws, storage remains at 3.168 trillion cubic feet, about 4 percent below year-ago levels, but more than 11 percent above the five-year average. (Storage graphic: link.reuters.com/mup44s) Inventories started the heating season in early November at 3.929 tcf, the fourth straight year when inventories have headed into the heating season at an all-time peak. Early withdrawal estimates for next week's storage report range from 122 bcf to 147 bcf, well below the 162 bcf pulled from inventory during the same week last year and the five-year average decline for that week of 176 bcf. RIGS SLIDE, BUT OUTPUT NEAR RECORD Traders were awaiting the next Baker Hughes gas drilling rig report expected later Friday. Last week's data showed the gas-directed rig count had fallen by five to 434, its first drop in four weeks. Drilling for natural gas has mostly declined for more than a year, with gas rigs down 54 percent since peaking at 936 in October 2011. (Rig graphic: r.reuters.com/dyb62s) But the EIA also said last week that it expected gas output in 2013 to rise to 69.84 bcf per day, the third straight annual record.
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