* Weekly inventory decline beats estimates for third week
* Record high production keeps buyers cautious
* Coming up: Baker Hughes rig data, CFTC trade data Friday
By Joe Silha
NEW YORK, Jan 17 U.S. natural gas futures ended
higher on Thursday, the fifth gain in six sessions, backed by a
bullish weekly inventory report and fairly cold forecasts for
the next 10 days that should force homeowners and businesses to
turn up their heaters.
U.S. Energy Information Administration data on Thursday
showed total domestic gas inventories fell last week by 148
billion cubic feet to 3.168 trillion cubic feet.
Traders viewed the decline as bullish, noting it was well
above the Reuters poll estimate of 136 bcf and the third
straight week that the inventory draw exceeded expectations.
Traders said stronger than expected demand recently may
reflect a structural, permanent growth in gas use this year,
likely driven by utilities switching away from coal to cheaper
gas for power generation.
"Today's 148 Bcf draw from natural gas storage was bullish
relative to street expectations," Mike Tran, analyst at CIBC
World Markets, said in a report.
Noting the market's recent sensitivity to weather, Tran said
cold weather forecast for the U.S. Midwest and East in coming
days may support prices, but under-hedged producers should
continue to be quick to cap rallies in the near term.
Front-month gas futures on the New York Mercantile
Exchange ended up 5.9 cents, or 1.7 percent, at $3.494 per
million British thermal units, after climbing to an intraday
high of $3.529 after the EIA report.
The front contract has gained more than 12 percent in six
sessions. Technical traders noted today's gain put the near
month above the 40-day moving average in the $3.46 area, the
first time above that resistance point in six weeks.
But despite colder weather ahead that should lend some
support to prices, many traders remain skeptical of the upside,
with inventories still relatively high and production flowing at
or near an all-time peak.
In addition, they note that if gas prices try to climb much
higher, to near the $4 mark, gas could lose its competitive edge
and prompt some power generators to switch back to coal.
MDA Weather Services on Thursday said widespread much-below
to strong-below normal temperatures were still projected from
the Midwest to the Northeast during the first few days of the
six- to 10-day time frame, but the private forecaster did note
that most computer models point to a warm-up after that.
ANOTHER BIG STORAGE DRAW
The weekly draw sharply widened the storage deficit relative
to last year by 59 bcf to 147 bcf, or 4 percent. While it also
trimmed 4 bcf from the surplus versus the five-year average,
stocks are still high at 316 bcf, or 11 percent above average.
Early withdrawal estimates for next week's storage report
range from 122 bcf to 190 bcf. Stocks fell an adjusted 162 bcf
during the same week last year, while the five-year average
decline for that week is 176 bcf.
If drawdowns for the rest of winter match the five-year
average pace, inventories will end the heating season at 2.044
tcf, about 18 percent above normal but nearly 18 percent below
last year's end-winter record of 2.48 tcf.
PRODUCTION STILL NEAR RECORD HIGH
Traders were waiting for the next drilling rig report from
Baker Hughes on Friday.
Drilling for natural gas has mostly been in decline for more
than a year, with gas rigs down some 54 percent since peaking in
2011 at 936 in October.
The gas count is not far above the 13-1/2-year low of 413
posted two months ago, but so far production has not shown any
signs of slowing.
EIA last week said it expected marketed gas production in
2013 to rise nearly 1 percent to an average of 69.84 bcf daily,
the third straight year of record output.