U.S. natgas futures down early for 3rd day on milder weather
* Front month still above recent 3-month low * Near-term mild weather could turn cold again next week * Nuclear outages running well above normal levels By Eileen Houlihan NEW YORK, Feb 11 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures slid for a third straight day early Monday, pressured by near-term milder weather in consuming regions this week after a winter storm over the weekend. In addition, bloated inventories and record production added more weight to the downside. But with some colder weather back in the six- to 10-day outlooks and nuclear plant outages running well above normal, some traders expect limited downside. Still others said time could be running out for winter. As of 9:22 a.m. EST (1422 GMT), front-month March natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at $3.221 per million British thermal units, down 5.1 cents, or nearly 2 percent. The front month contract hit a 6-1/2 week high of $3.645 in late January after touching a more than three-month low of $3.05 in early January. Forecaster MDA Weather Services called for above-normal temperatures from the Midwest through the East in its one- to five-day outlook. But in its six- to 10-day forecast, as well as the latest National Weather Service six- to 10-day forecast issued on Sunday, both called for below-normal readings for most of the nation. Nuclear outages totaled 12,100 megawatts, or 12 percent of U.S. capacity, up from 10,800 MW out a year ago and a five-year average outage rate of about 8,400 MW. ANOTHER BELOW AVERAGE STORAGE DRAW Last week's gas storage report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed total domestic inventories fell the prior week by 118 billion cubic feet to 2.684 trillion cubic feet. Most traders viewed the report as bearish, noting the draw came in well below Reuters poll estimates for a 132 bcf drop. While stocks are now 8 percent below last year's record levels, they are 15 percent above the five-year average level for this time of year. Estimates for this week's inventory report range from 128 bcf to 180 bcf versus a year-ago drop of 113 bcf and a five-year average decline for that week of 154 bcf. If withdrawals for the rest of winter match the five-year average, stocks will end March at 2.079 tcf, about 20 percent above normal, but 16 percent below last year, when inventories finished a very mild heating season at a record high 2.48 tcf. DRILLING DECLINES, PRODUCTION FAILS TO SLOW Baker Hughes data on Friday showed the gas-directed drilling rig count fell for the fourth time in five weeks, dropping by three to 425. But while the gas rig count is hovering not far above the 13-1/2-year low of 413 hit three months ago, production has shown no significant sign of slowing. Producers have curbed dry gas drilling but the associated gas produced by more profitable liquids-rich wells has kept gas flowing at or near a record pace.