Battered natural gas prices are getting a bit of a break as cooler spring weather raises expectations that demand may improve.
Natural gas rose 4.7 cents to $2.173 per 1,000 cubic feet in Friday trading. That's up nearly 14 percent from April 19 when the price hit the lowest level in more than a decade at $1.907 per 1,000 cubic feet.
The price has plunged this year as a natural gas production boom created a glut of supply and demand dropped during a mild winter.
Now, some in the market are suggesting demand will strengthen, which help boost prices.
Cooler weather moving across the Northeast and parts of the Midwest and the Rockies late this week could prompt homeowners to turn up the heat, creating more need for natural gas.
In addition, utilities have been substituting cheaper natural gas for coal to generate electricity. As much as 6 billion cubic feet a day of natural gas has replaced coal-fired power generation this year, said Ron Denhardt, an analyst with Strategic Energy & Economic Research. Consumption on an annual basis is about 66 billion to 67 billion cubic feet a day.
In addition, some energy companies have cut production because low prices can make it unprofitable to drill for some types of natural gas.
Yet, several analysts believe any rally will be short-lived.
It's late spring, which means any pick-up in demand for heating will be brief. About 70 percent of the nation's demand for natural gas comes during the winter when it is used to heat homes and businesses.
Natural gas inventories continue to build. Analysts say that underground storage could be filled to the brim by fall without additional production cuts or an extremely hot summer.
"It's fundamentally a disastrous market," Denhardt said. "I can't see any turnaround of any significance before November, December of this year."
PFGBest analyst Phil Flynn said there has to be an even bigger drop in price to force companies to cut more production. He speculated that the price will test an all-time low of $1.35 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In other trading, oil prices rose slightly, shrugging off after a report the economy grew more slowly in the first three months of the year as governments spent less and businesses cut back on investment. But consumers spent at the fastest pace in more than a year. The Commerce Department estimated Friday that the economy grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the January-March quarter, compared with a 3 percent rate in the final quarter of 2011.
Benchmark oil rose 20 cents to $104.74 per barrel in New York. But Brent crude fell 48 cents to $119.44 per barrel in London. Heating oil declined 2.15 cents to $3.1769 per gallon and gasoline futures dropped 0.89 cent to $3.1239 per gallon.
At the pump, gasoline prices were little changed at $3.826 per gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express and the Oil Price Information Service. That's 8.5 cents less than a month ago and 5.3 cents lower than a year ago.
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