U.S. natgas futures edge higher ahead of EIA storage data
* Front month below Tuesday's six-week high * Cold weather still on tap in long-term outlooks * Nuclear outages running above normal * Coming Up: EIA natgas storage data on Thursday By Eileen Houlihan NEW YORK, March 7 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures edged higher on Thursday, climbing amid continued cold weather and ahead of weekly government storage data expected to show a large withdrawal from winter inventories. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said it would release weekly natural gas inventory data at its usual time of 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT) on Thursday despite a fierce winter snowstorm that shut down government offices in Washington. Industry analysts expect weekly data to show a withdrawal of about 134 billion cubic feet when the data is released, according to a Reuters poll, above the year-ago draw of 92 bcf and a five-year average drop of 107 bcf for that week. As of 9:20 a.m. EST (1420 GMT), front-month April natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at $3.499 per million British thermal units, up 2.9 cents, or less than 1 percent. The nearby contract rose Tuesday to a six-week high of $3.594 before closing lower on Wednesday. Cold late-winter weather had helped push the front contract up about 12 percent in a little over two weeks and turned the chart picture more supportive, but the close below $3.50 on Wednesday had some traders saying that could signal an end to the recent uptrend. Forecaster MDA Weather Services called for normal or below-normal readings across the country in its one to five-day outlook. The latest National Weather Service six to 10-day forecast issued on Wednesday again called for below-normal temperatures for a little more than the eastern half of the nation, with normal or above-normal readings in the West. Nuclear outages totaled about 14,800 megawatts, or 15 percent of U.S. capacity, down from 15,000 MW out on Wednesday and 17,800 MW out a year-ago, but up from a five-year average outage rate of about 13,900 MW. ABOVE-AVERAGE STORAGE DRAW Last week's EIA gas storage report showed domestic inventories fell the prior week by 171 bcf to 2.229 trillion cubic feet. The weekly draw came in well above the five-year average drop for that week and storage is 12 percent below last year's record high levels, but it is also 16 percent above the five-year average level. Most analysts expect storage to end the heating season at about 2 tcf, or 16 percent above average, but 19 percent below last winter's record-high finish of 2.48 tcf. OUTPUT COULD BE STARTING TO SLOW Traders were awaiting the next Baker Hughes gas drilling rig report to be released on Friday. Data last week showed the gas-directed drilling rig count fell for the fourth time in five weeks, dropping by eight to 420. The gas drilling rig count is hovering just above the 13-1/2-year low of 413 hit in early November, but production is still high. Also the EIA said last week that gross natural gas output in December slipped slightly from November's record high, the first time in four months that production failed to set a new peak. But most analysts pegged the decline to cold weather in the Southwest that likely froze wells and not producers intentionally curbing dry gas flows. The EIA expects marketed gas production in 2013 to hit a record high for the third straight year.