Extreme Ways - What It Took to Balance the Natural Gas Market This Fall

You wouldn’t know it from the $2.50-plus/MMBtu Henry Hub prompt natural gas futures prices in the past couple of months, but the U.S. gas market this injection season just barely managed to avoid a complete meltdown. Despite gas production volumes trailing year-ago levels all summer long, it wasn’t until the last month or two of the traditional injection season (April through October) that the market tightened enough to escape a major storage crunch. In reality, it took the multi-pronged effects of production cutbacks — in part from hurricane-related disruptions — higher LNG and pipeline exports, and cooler fall weather, to make that happen. Today, we review the U.S. natural gas supply/demand balance and implications for 2021.

The Lower 48’s natural gas market has come a long way since the early days of summer. Less than six months ago, the prompt gas futures prices were scraping along 25-year lows just below $1.50/MMBtu, and the storage inventory was carrying a hefty 600-plus-Bcf surplus vs. last year that, if it lingered through fall, threatened to test the U.S. storage capacity limit. By the end of October, however, the traditional threshold between injection season and the winter withdrawal season, that surplus had been whittled down to less than 200 Bcf; the November prompt contract expired just shy of $3/MMBtu; and December futures stepped into prompt position at upwards of $3.30/MMBtu, which was the highest we’ve seen during October trading in six years. That bullishness has receded in November with the warmer-than-normal weather and rising storage surplus, but prices remain at a premium to year-ago levels.

Figure 1 below summarizes the average year-on-year changes for each of the supply-demand components that make up the balance during the April-October period. These comparisons provide a quick glance at the relative tightening or loosening of the supply-demand balance versus last year and are based on the historical data behind RBN’s NATGAS Billboard report. The report provides a daily assessment of U.S. natural gas supply, demand, storage, and pricing, using pipeline flows, weather, and our historical supply-demand and storage models, which incorporate the latest monthly data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The red bars in the graph indicate a decline vs. last year, while the blue bars show a positive change to last year.

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