U.S. natgas futures edge up, remain under Monday's 20-mth high
* Front month hit highest mark since July 2011 on Monday * Below-normal temperatures remain on tap for consuming regions * Nuclear plant outages still above five-year average * Coming Up: EIA natgas storage data Thursday By Eileen Houlihan NEW YORK, April 17 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures edged higher early on Wednesday, lifted by forecasts for continued below-normal temperatures in consuming regions of the nation, but remained below Monday's highest mark in more than 20 months. A tightening supply picture and continuing spring nuclear power plant outages also helped underpin prices. Gas futures are up about 34 percent since mid-February, after cold late-winter weather put a huge dent in inventories. But most traders expect further upside to be difficult, with milder, spring-like temperatures likely to curb heating demand by late this month, before warmer weather sparks any early cooling demand. As of 9:15 a.m. EDT (1315 GMT), front-month May natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were at $4.19 per million British thermal units, up 3 cents, or just under 1 percent, after rising to $4.29 on Monday, the highest level for a nearby contact since late July 2011. The latest National Weather Service six-to-10-day forecast, issued on Tuesday, again called for below-normal temperatures for about the eastern half of the nation and mostly above-normal readings in the West. Nuclear outages totaled 26,800 megawatts, or 27 percent of U.S. capacity, down from 27,300 MW on Tuesday and 27,000 MW a year ago, but up from a five-year average outage rate of 24,400 MW. INVENTORY DRAW BELOW EXPECTATIONS, ABOVE AVERAGE Last week's gas storage report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed domestic inventories fell in the prior week by 14 billion cubic feet, below Reuters poll estimates for a 21 bcf draw but above the year-ago gain of 11 bcf and the five-year average build of 15 bcf for that week. Domestic gas inventories of 1.673 trillion cubic feet are nearly 33 percent below last year's record high and nearly 4 percent below the five-year average. Inventories started the heating season at record highs, but two weeks ago stocks slid below the five-year norm for the first time since September 2011. Last week's inventory decline should be the last of the heating season, with estimates for this week's report all looking for a modest build. Early injection estimates for Thursday's gas storage report range from 15 bcf to 45 bcf, versus a 21-bcf build during the same week last year and a five-year average rise for that week of 39 bcf. Total gas pulled from storage this winter is about 2.25 tcf, roughly 770 bcf, or 52 percent, more than last year and about 15 percent more than the normal heating-season draw. Baker Hughes data last week showed the gas-directed drilling rig count rose 2 from the prior week's 14-year low, to 377.
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