U.S. natgas futures edge higher ahead of weekly EIA storage data
* Front month remains below last week's 19-month spot high * Above-normal temperatures on tap for eastern U.S. * Nuclear outages slip back below normal * Coming Up: EIA natgas storage data later Thursday By Eileen Houlihan NEW YORK, April 4 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures edged higher for the first time in five sessions early on Thursday, with expectations for a large weekly drawdown from inventories adding support despite forecasts for milder weather late this week and next. Most traders and analysts expect weekly data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to show a withdrawal of about 91 billion cubic feet when it is released at 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430 GMT), a Reuters poll showed. Stocks rose an adjusted 43 bcf during the same week last year and on average over the past five years have gained 4 bcf that week. Late-winter cold has put a huge dent in inventories and driven gas prices up nearly 30 percent since mid-February, but most traders expect moderating weather in the coming days to limit any additional upside. As of 9:10 a.m. EDT (1310 GMT), front-month May natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at $3.935 per million British thermal units, up 3.5 cents, or just under 1 percent, after rising to $4.121 last week, the highest level for a nearby contact since September 2011. Forecaster MDA Weather Services said a warming theme was taking shape in its one-to-five-day outlook, with normal or above-normal temperatures on tap for most of the nation. The latest National Weather Service six-to-10-day forecast issued on Wednesday again called for above-normal readings for about the eastern half of the nation and along the West Coast, with some below-normal readings in parts of the mid-continent. Nuclear outages totaled 21,200 megawatts, or 21 percent of capacity, down from 22,400 MW out on Wednesday, 21,500 MW out a year ago, and a five-year average outage rate of 21,700 MW. INVENTORY DRAW WELL ABOVE EXPECTATIONS Last week's EIA report showed domestic gas inventories fell from the prior week by 95 bcf, above Reuters poll estimates for an 87 bcf draw. It was the fifth time in six weeks that the weekly withdrawal was above expectations. Domestic gas inventories are now at 1.781 trillion cubic feet, nearly 27 percent below last year's record high, but still nearly 4 percent above the five-year average. Stocks began the winter at a record 3.929 tcf, but about 2.15 tcf of gas has been pulled from storage so far this heating season, or 45 percent more than last year at this time. Storage will probably end the heating season near the 1.73 tcf average, or 30 percent below last winter's record-high finish of 2.48 tcf. 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 29 to a 14-year low of 389.
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