U.S. natgas futures higher ahead of late-season storage draw
* Front month below Monday's 20-month spot chart high * Traders expect weekly drawdown from inventories * Some cold weather back on tap in northern states * Coming Up: EIA natgas storage data 10:30 a.m. EDT/1430 GMT By Eileen Houlihan NEW YORK, April 11 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures edged higher early on Thursday, lifted by expectations for another late-season inventory withdrawal later in the day and some below-normal temperatures back on tap for northern states. With milder, spring-like weather in consuming regions of the nation earlier week, traders had expected more upside to be limited. But with the cold returning to the Midwest and plenty of spring power plant outages, demand for gas-fired generation remained firm. Most traders and analysts expect weekly data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to show a draw of about 21 billion cubic feet when it is released at 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430 GMT), a Reuters poll showed. Stocks gained 11 bcf during the same week last year and on average over the past five years have risen 15 bcf for that week. Gas futures are up about 31 percent since mid-February, lifted by cold late-winter weather that put a huge dent in inventories, above-average nuclear power plant outages and stronger price expectations. As of 9:06 a.m. EDT (1306 GMT), front-month May natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at $4.092 per million British thermal units, up 0.7 cent, or less than 1 percent. The contract rose to $4.18 on Monday, the highest mark for a nearby contact since August 2011. Forecaster MDA Weather Services called for below or much-below-normal temperatures across northern-tier states in its one to five-day outlook, with above-normal temperatures in much of the South. The latest National Weather Service six- to 10-day forecast issued on Wednesday called for below-normal readings in the mid-Continent and above-normal readings along the East Coast and in the Southwest. Nuclear outages totaled 21,900 megawatts, or 22 percent of capacity, down from 22,100 MW out on Wednesday, 25,600 MW out a year ago and a five-year average outage rate of 23,500 MW. Traders said a number of coal-fired units also remained down for spring maintenance. For the latest table on power plant outages by region click on the link INVENTORY DRAW ABOVE EXPECTATIONS AGAIN Last week's EIA gas storage report showed domestic inventories fell in the prior week by 94 bcf, above Reuters poll estimates for a 91 bcf draw. It was the sixth time in seven weeks that the weekly withdrawal exceeded expectations. Domestic gas inventories of 1.687 trillion cubic feet are nearly 32 percent below last year's record high and more than 2 percent below the five-year average. Inventories fell below the five-year average for the first time since September 2011, a supportive sign, particularly with another draw expected this week. Stocks look likely to end the heating season near 1.66 tcf, about 33 percent below last winter's record-high finish of 2.48 tcf and 4 percent below average. Baker Hughes data last week showed the gas-directed drilling rig count fell 14 to a 14-year low of 375.