Jan 7 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas production was forecast to hit a fifth consecutive annual record high in 2015, while net imports of the fuel next year will drop to their lowest in nearly 30 years as output from shale fields grows, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said on Tuesday.
In its January Short-Term Energy Outlook which extends to 2015, the EIA said it expected marketed natural gas production in 2014 to rise 1.45 billion cubic feet per day, or 2.1 percent from 2013's estimated record-high levels, to 71.66 bcf per day.
EIA also forecast production will increase again in 2015 to 72.58 bcf per day, up about 1.3 percent from its 2014 forecast.
EIA said rising production in the Marcellus shale play in Appalachia has driven much of the recent production growth, more than outpacing declines in offshore Gulf of Mexico and Haynesville shale output.
EIA however noted rapid Marcellus production growth was causing gas forward prices in the Northeast to fall even to, or below the benchmark Henry Hub prices outside of peak-demand winter months. This could cause some drilling activity to move away from the Marcellus back to Gulf Coast plays, such as the Haynesville and Barnett.
Pipeline imports from Canada were expected to decline slightly next year, falling to 7.54 bcf daily from the 7.56 bcfd estimated in 2013.
Growing domestic production over the past several years has replaced pipeline imports from Canada, while exports to Mexico have increased. The EIA said it expects these trends will continue through 2015.
EIA projected net imports of 3.0 bcfd in 2014 and 2.5 bcfd in 2015, which would be the lowest level since 1986. Over the longer term, EIA projected the United States will be a net exporter of gas beginning in 2018.
EIA lowered its estimate for gas consumption in 2014 by 2.2 percent from 2013 levels to 69.71 bcf per day.
In 2015, EIA forecast average consumption would rise over 2014's average to 71.13 bcf per day.
EIA said gas consumption should decline in 2014 because of a forecast decline in heating degree days and lower gas use by the industrial and power sectors.
Coal used for power generation was expected to rise from 39.1 percent in 2013 to 40.2 percent in 2014 before sliding to 38.6 percent in 2015.
Natural gas used for power generation, meanwhile, was expected to decline from 27.5 percent in 2013 to 26.8 percent in 2014 before rising up to 27.6 percent in 2015.
EIA said Henry Hub natural gas prices in 2013 averaged $3.73 per million British thermal units in 2013, up 4 cents from its December forecast. EIA forecast gas will average $3.89 in 2014 and $4.11 in 2015.