U.S. natgas futures rise 2 pct to 3-1/2-mth spot high
* Front month at highest mark since late November * Nuclear outages still running above normal * Cold weather back on tap on longer-term outlooks * Coming Up: Baker Hughes gas drilling rig data on Friday By Eileen Houlihan NEW YORK, March 15 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures rose more than 2 percent early Friday to a 3-1/2-month spot chart high amid continued follow-through from Thursday's supportive weekly storage data and forecasts for more cold weather in consuming regions next week. In addition, above-average nuclear power plant outages also help keep momentum to the upside. Most traders agreed the chart picture remained supportive after the front-month contract broke through several key resistance levels on its 25-percent run up from a five-week low of $3.125 per million British thermal units hit in mid-February. But some cautioned that the impending end of winter could provide resistance to higher prices. As of 9:23 a.m. EDT (1323 GMT), front-month April natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at $3.881 per mmBtu, up 6.9 cents, or nearly 2 percent. The front-month rose as high as $3.897 in electronic trade, the highest mark for a spot contract since late November, according to Reuters data. Forecaster MDA Weather Services called for cold weather in northern-tier states in its one to five-day outlook. The latest National Weather Service six to 10-day forecast issued on Thursday called for below-normal temperatures for much of the United States, with above-normal readings in the Southeast stretching into south Texas. Nuclear outages totaled 18,300 megawatts, or 18 percent of U.S. capacity, up from 17,400 MW out on Thursday and a five-year average outage rate of about 16,700 MW, but down from 19,600 MW out a year ago. ANOTHER ABOVE-AVERAGE STORAGE DRAW U.S. Energy Information Administration data on Thursday showed storage fell 145 billion cubic feet last week, above Reuters poll expectations for a 134 bcf draw, the year-ago drop of 66 bcf and the five-year average decline for that week of 74 bcf. It was the fourth straight larger-than-expected drawdown from inventories. The data showed domestic gas inventories are now at 1.938 trillion cubic feet, nearly 19 percent below last year's record high levels for this time of year, but about 11 percent above the five-year average level. A string of strong weekly withdrawals has prompted analysts to sharply lower estimates for end-winter storage, with some expecting inventories to drop to as low as 1.8 tcf, or about 4 percent above average. A Reuters poll in mid-January showed most analysts had expected stocks to finish the heating season at about 2 tcf. Early withdrawal estimates for next week's EIA storage report range from 48 bcf to 69 bcf, versus a flat year-ago week and a five-year average withdrawal of 26 bcf for that week. Traders were waiting for the next Baker Hughes gas drilling rig report to be released later on Friday. Data last week showed the gas-directed rig count fell 13 to a nearly 14-year low of 407. It was the fifth drop in six weeks, but production has not slowed much, if at all, from the record high posted last year. While the EIA on Tuesday lowered its growth forecast for 2013, it still expects marketed gas production to hit a record high for the third straight year.