U.S. gas: Futures higher, biding time before summer demand

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Natural gas futures rose Monday on followthrough buying after a drop in the weekly drilling rig count, but traders said an uncertain near-term weather outlook may cap further gains.

Natural gas for June delivery recently traded 3.2 cents, or 0.8%, higher at $4.278 a million British thermal units. Prices moved in a range of $4.196 to $4.308 since Friday's settlement.

Prices were buoyed by news that the Baker Hughes Inc. (BHI) count for working gas rigs fell by 16 last week, to 874 rigs, the lowest since January 2010. But Kyle Cooper, managing partner at IAF Advisors in Houston, warned that watching only the gas rig count was "myopic" and ignored the larger trend in drilling. Cooper said 20% of U.S. gas output is associated with oil output. Baker Hughes said the working oil rig count rose 13 to 947, the highest level since 1987.

Still, with U.S. natural gas inventories at 2% below the five-year average and 12% under 2010 levels, the supply deficit remains significant and should underpin prices, he said. Gas is now at the low end of an expected $4.00 to $4.70 range, Cooper said.

But he expects prices to bide time until summer demand prospects becomes clear.

Traders noted the near-term weather picture is mixed. Normal to below-normal temperatures are expected across much of the country in the next five days, followed by a shift to above-normal temperatures in the eastern half of the country in the 6-10 day forecast. Midwest temperatures are expected to return to normal, while above-average temperatures are seen for the south and northeast in the 11-15 day forecast., said Addison Armstrong of Tradition Energy.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is schedule to release both its June-August forecast for U.S. temperatures and its Atlantic hurricane season forecasts on Thursday. Any signs of cooler summer temperatures for much of the nation, that would hurt cooling demand, would be a bearish reversal of last year, Cooper said. "Mother Nature has been a real bull," he said, but a cooler summer outlook could pressure prices toward $3.75.

Meanwhile, natural gas for next-day delivery at the benchmark Henry Hub in Louisiana recently traded at $4.21/MMBtu, according to InterContinental Exchange, up 12 cents from Friday's average. Natural gas for Tuesday delivery at Transcontinental Zone 6 in New York traded at $4.49/MMBtu, up 17 cents from Friday.



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