U.S. gas: Futures lower ahead of contract expiration

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Natural-gas futures pared some losses made Tuesday, but a lack of sustained heat kept pressure on the market to end the session down amid low trading volume.

Natural gas for August delivery settled down 1.6 cents, or 0.4%, to $4.370 per million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The most actively traded contract, for September delivery, settled down 2.4 cents, or 0.6%, to $4.331/MMBtu.

The August contract expires at the close of Wednesday's session.

Though futures fell more than a nickel during trading, the lack of volume behind the decline was "a more neutral signal," said Pax Saunders, an analyst with Gelber & Associates, in a note to clients at mid-day.

The low volume can partly be explained by the time of year for the market, said Gene McGillian, an analyst with Tradition Energy in Stamford, Conn. He noted that prices have moved in the past few months from about $4 to settle around $4.80 before pulling back.

"I think the market's found a pretty good value area," McGillian said.

Hot weather supportive of prices hasn't completely disappeared, but less heat over much of the eastern half of the country has reduced electricity demand from the record levels seen last week.

Natural gas accounts for about a quarter of U.S. electricity generation, and demand for the fuel tends to rise as more people turn up their air conditioners for relief from high temperatures and humidity.

For now, heat indices of more than 100 degrees remain in parts of the central U.S., and a similar level of heat is expected by Friday in the Mid-Atlantic states. Hotter above-normal temperatures are expected in Texas and the Midwest in the six- to 10-day forecast, private forecaster MDA EarthSat Weather said.

Going forward, McGillian said he has an upward bias for natural-gas prices as the most active part of the hurricane season is on the horizon. The peak concern period for the season is between Aug. 15 and Sept. 15, Commodity Weather Group said.

Tropical storms and hurricanes can hamper natural-gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, but this hasn't occurred so far this season. The chance for a storm system in the northwest Caribbean Sea to become a tropical cyclone in the next 48 hours has risen slightly since Tuesday morning, from 20% to 30%, the National Weather Service said.

Traders are also looking ahead to Thursday's Energy Information Administration weekly storage report, which some expect to show a small injection because of last week's hot weather.

Natural-gas storage injections have been larger than expected in some recent weeks, however, due to support from robust production levels.

At the halfway point of the injection season, as of July 15, the working natural-gas inventories for the lower 48 states are about 7.4% lower than the inventory level for the same time last year and 2.2% lower than the five-year average, according to the EIA.



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