U.S. natgas futures extend losses on milder long-term weather
* Front month well above recent 3-month spot low * Above-normal nuclear outages, near-term cold limit losses * Record production, bloated storage could limit upside By Eileen Houlihan NEW YORK, Jan 23 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures edged lower for a second straight day on Wednesday, pressured by some profit-taking after recent gains and by milder long-term weather forecasts despite continued near-term cold. But with above-normal nuclear power plant outages and some forecasts calling for a return to cold weather by mid-February, traders remained cautious of more downside. Others said bloated inventories and record production could limit any upside. As of 9:17 a.m. EST (1417 GMT), front-month February natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at $3.53 per million British thermal units, down 2.8 cents, or less than 1 percent. The front month contract is still up more than 13 percent in the last eight sessions, after falling in early January to $3.05, a contract low and the lowest mark for a spot contract since late September. Forecaster MDA Weather Services called for far-below-normal temperatures for most of the eastern half of the nation in its one to five-day outlook, but the forecast switched to above-normal readings for the East in its six to 10-day outlook. The latest National Weather Service six-to-10-day forecast issued on Tuesday agreed, with above-normal readings in the eastern third of the country and across the South, with normal or below-normal temperatures confined to the West. Nuclear outages totaled 10,200 megawatts, or 10 percent of U.S. capacity, down slightly from 10,600 MW out on Tuesday, but up from 9,100 MW out a year ago and a five-year average outage rate of about 7,700 MW. ANOTHER BIG STORAGE DRAW, BUT STOCKS ABOVE AVERAGE Last week's gas storage report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed inventories fell the prior week by 148 billion cubic feet, above industry expectations for a 136-bcf draw. Declines have beat industry expectations for the past three weeks, with the data reflecting what could be some permanent underlying growth in demand this year as utilities switch from coal to cheaper gas for power generation. Despite the large draws, storage remains at 3.168 trillion cubic feet, about 4 percent below year-earlier levels, but more than 11 percent above the five-year average. Inventories started the heating season in early November at 3.929 tcf, the fourth straight year in which they have headed into the heating season at a record peak. Early withdrawal estimates for this week's storage report range from 122 bcf to 181 bcf versus 162 bcf pulled from inventory during the same week last year and the five-year average decline for that week of 176 bcf. RIGS SLIDE, BUT OUTPUT NEAR RECORD Baker Hughes data on Friday showed the gas-directed rig count had fallen by five to 429, its second straight weekly loss. Drilling for natural gas has mostly declined for more than a year, with gas rigs down 54 percent since peaking at 936 in October 2011. But the EIA also said recently that it expected gas output in 2013 to rise to 69.84 bcf per day, the third straight annual record.
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