(Reuters) - U.S. natural gas speculators this week boosted net longs for a seventh week in a row to the most since April 2014, betting prices would keep rising on the possibility there would be less gas in storage at the start of next winter than usual due to low production and rising exports.
Speculators in four major New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) and Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) markets added to bullish bets by 19,294 contracts to 388,708 in the week to April 18, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission said on Friday.
Gas futures on the NYMEX averaged $3.18 per million British thermal units during the four trading days ended April 18 versus $3.25 during the five trading days ended April 11.
There were only four trading days during the week ended April 18 due to the U.S. Good Friday holiday.
After one of the warmest winters on record, inventories ended the November-March withdrawal season at almost 2.1 trillion cubic feet. That compares with a record high 2.5 tcf on March 31 last year and a five-year (2012-2016) average of 1.8 tcf. [NGAS/POLL]
Over the summer, however, analysts forecast utilities would add just 1.7 tcf of gas during the April-October injection season, which would be much less than the 2.1 tcf seen on average over the past five years.
If correct, that would leave stockpiles at the end of October at just 3.7 tcf versus a record high of 4.0 tcf on Oct. 31 last year and a five-year average (2012-16) of 3.9 tcf.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in April forecast pipeline and liquefied natural gas exports would rise from an average of 6.3 billion cubic feet per day (bcfd) in 2016 to 8.2 bcfd in 2017 and 9.6 bcfd in 2018. Some analysts expect exports to rise even further this year and next.
That puts the United States on track to transition from a net importer of gas to a net exporter of the fuel on an annual basis in 2017 or 2018. The U.S. was last a net exporter of gas on an annual basis in 1957.
U.S. gas production, meanwhile, has remained at its lowest since 2014 over the past month or so, averaging just 70.1 bcfd during the past 30 days. That compared with 72.5 bcfd during the same period a year earlier, 73.6 bcfd in 2015 and 67.8 bcfd in 2014, according to Thomson Reuters data.
Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Tom Brown and Andrew Hay