U.S. natgas futures edge lower after 19-mth high, pre-EIAs
* Front month hits highest mark since early September 2011 * More cold weather on tap in long-term forecasts * Nuclear outages back below last year, five-year levels By Eileen Houlihan NEW YORK, March 28 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures slid early on Thursday, after climbing to their highest mark in 19 months amid lingering cold weather and ahead of government storage data expected to show another large withdrawal from inventories. Traders and analysts expect weekly data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to show a draw of about 87 billion cubic feet when it is released at 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430 GMT), a Reuters poll showed. Stocks rose an adjusted 45 bcf during the same week last year, and on average over the past five years have gained 6 bcf for the week ended March 22. Traders said the market could be consolidating in some profit taking after the nearby contract rose to its highest level since early September 2011. Late-winter cold has put a huge dent in inventories and helped drive gas futures up about $1 per million British thermal unit, or more than 30 percent, since mid-February. Above-normal nuclear power plant outages have also increased demand for gas-fired replacement power and underpinned price gains. But some traders said gas was due for a pullback, with winter-like weather expected to wind down soon and nuclear outages returning to below average levels. As of 9:13 a.m. EDT (1313 GMT), front-month May natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at $4.045 per mmBtu, down 2.3 cents, or less than 1 percent, after rising to as high as $4.121 in electronic trade. Despite some moderating weather in the Northeast late this week, the latest National Weather Service six to 10-day forecast issued on Wednesday again called for below-normal readings in a little more than the eastern half of the nation and above-normal readings in the West. But nuclear outages totaled 18,400 megawatts, or 18 percent of U.S. capacity, down from 21,800 MW out on Wednesday, 20,700 MW out a year ago and a five-year average outage rate of 19,200 MW. INVENTORY DRAW FALLS SHORT OF EXPECTATIONS Last week's EIA storage report showed total domestic gas inventories fell in the prior week by 62 billion cubic feet, below Reuters poll estimates for a 70 bcf draw. It was the first time in five weeks that the weekly draw fell short of expectations. Domestic gas inventories are now at 1.876 trillion cubic feet, more than 21 percent below last year's record high for this time of year but about 10 percent above the five-year average. Stocks seem on track to end the heating season below 1.8 tcf, or just 3 percent above average. A Reuters poll in mid-January showed most analysts expected stocks to finish the winter at about 2 tcf. Baker Hughes data last week showed the gas-directed drilling rig count fell by 13 to 418, hovering just above the recent 14-year low of 407 posted three weeks ago. While the EIA recently lowered its growth forecast for 2013, it still expects marketed gas production to hit a record high for the third straight year.
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