U.S. natgas futures little changed after Monday's 20-mth high
* Front month hit highest mark since August 2011 on Monday * Above-normal temperatures on tap for South * Below-normal readings seen for most northern states By Eileen Houlihan NEW YORK, April 9 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures edged lower early on Tuesday, consolidating in some profit taking after Monday's 20-month spot chart high. With milder weather on tap for consuming regions of the nation, most traders expect more upside to be limited. But others remained cautious of the downside, noting plenty of spring power plant outages and expectations for another late inventory withdrawal. Government storage data last week showed inventories fell below the five-year average for the first time since September 2011, a supportive sign, particularly with another draw expected this week. Cold late-winter weather, above-average nuclear power plant outages and stronger price expectations have helped drive gas futures up about 34 percent since mid-February. As of 9:22 a.m. EDT (1322 GMT), front-month May natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at $4.058 per million British thermal units, down 2.4 cents, or less than 1 percent. The contract rose to $4.18 on Monday, the highest mark for a nearby contact since August 2011. Forecaster MDA Weather Services called for above or much-above normal temperatures in the Southeast in its one to five-day outlook, with below or much-below-normal temperatures across the mid-Continent. The latest National Weather Service six to 10-day forecast issued on Monday called for above-normal readings across southern states and below-normal readings across northwest states. Nuclear outages totaled 22,900 megawatts, or 23 percent of capacity, down from 24,900 MW a year ago and a five-year average outage rate of 23,300 MW. INVENTORY DRAW ABOVE EXPECTATIONS AGAIN Last week's gas storage report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed domestic inventories fell in the prior week by 94 billion cubic feet, above Reuters poll estimates for a 91 bcf draw. It was the sixth time in seven weeks that the weekly withdrawal was above expectations. Domestic gas inventories of 1.687 trillion cubic feet are nearly 32 percent below last year's record high and more than 2 percent below the five-year average. Early withdrawal estimates for this week's storage report range from 5 bcf to 46 bcf, compared with an 11-bcf build during the same week last year and a five-year average rise of 15 bcf for the week. Stocks look likely to end the heating season near 1.66 tcf, about 33 percent below last winter's record-high finish of 2.48 tcf and 4 percent below average. Baker Hughes data on Friday showed the gas-directed drilling rig count fell by 14 last week to a 14-year low of 375.
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