* Front month remains above recent 3-month low
* Colder weather set to return to Midwest
* Nuclear outages running just above normal
* Coming Up: EIA natgas storage data Thursday
By Eileen Houlihan
NEW YORK, Jan 31 U.S. natural gas futures edged
lower early Thursday, sliding for the seventh time in eight
sessions despite some near-term cold weather in the Midwest and
expectations for another big weekly inventory withdrawal.
Traders said expectations for the big draw had likely
already been priced into the market, with Thursday's data
expected to show the largest draw of the heating season so far.
With the cold weather not expected to last in consuming
regions and nuclear outages only running slightly above normal,
most traders expect limited upside.
A Reuters poll showed traders and analysts expect weekly
data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to show a
draw of about 206 billion cubic feet when it is released at
10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT.)
Stocks slid 149 bcf during the same week last year and on
average over the past five years have fallen 178 bcf that week.
As of 9:36 a.m. EST (1436 GMT), front-month March natural
gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at
$3.32 per million British thermal units, down 1.5 cents, or less
than 1 percent.
The front month contract hit a 6-1/2-week high of $3.645
early last week before losing more than 9 percent in six
sessions followed by a more than 2 percent gain on Wednesday.
The spot contract also hit a more than three-month low of
$3.05 in early January.
Forecaster MDA Weather Services said cold would linger in
the Midwest for the next five days, with a return to
above-normal or far-above-normal temperatures for much of the
country in the six to 10-day outlook.
The latest National Weather Service six to 10-day forecast
issued on Wednesday also called for above-normal readings for
most of the nation with near-normal temperatures along both
Nuclear outages totaled 6,800 megawatts, or 7 percent of
U.S. capacity, down from 7,100 MW out on Wednesday and 11,000 MW
out a year ago, but up from a five-year average outage rate of
about 6,500 MW.
BIG STORAGE DRAWS FAIL TO FIRM PRICES
Last week's EIA gas storage report showed domestic gas
inventories fell in the prior week by 172 bcf, above industry
expectations for a 167 bcf draw.
Most traders viewed the decline as supportive, noting it was
the fourth straight week that declines topped industry
Traders said the recent larger-than-expected inventory draws
could be reflecting new growth in gas use this year as utilities
switch from coal to cheaper gas for power generation.
But despite the large withdrawals, storage remains at 2.996
trillion cubic feet, about 5 percent below year-earlier levels,
but 12 percent above the five-year average.
If drawdowns for the rest of the winter match the five-year
average, inventories will end March at 2.048 tcf, about 18
percent above normal but 17 percent below last year, when stocks
finished a very mild heating season at a record-high 2.48 tcf.
GAS RIG COUNT GAINS, FIRST TIME IN THREE WEEKS
Baker Hughes data last week showed the gas-directed
drilling rig count gained for the first time in three weeks,
rising by five to 434.
Drilling for natural gas has mostly been in decline for more
than a year, with the rig count not far above the 13-1/2-year
low of 413 posted in early November. But so far production has
shown no significant sign of slowing.
The EIA estimates that gas output in 2013 will hit a record
high for the third straight year.