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The U.S. Energy Department's weekly inventory release showed a below-average decrease in natural gas supplies. Forecasts of an end to the harsh cold snap and the resultant dip in heating demand added to the bearish sentiment, bringing prices down sharply.

About the Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report

The Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report – brought out by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) every Thursday since 2002 – includes updates on natural gas market prices, the latest storage level estimates, recent weather data and other market activities or events.

The report provides an overview of the level of reserves and their movements, thereby helping investors understand the demand/supply dynamics of natural gas. It is an indicator of current gas prices and volatility that affect businesses of natural gas-weighted companies and related support plays.

Analysis of the Data: Smaller-than-Expected Draw

Stockpiles held in underground storage in the lower 48 states fell by 206 billion cubic feet (Bcf) for the week ended Dec. 29, below the guidance (of 219 Bcf decline) as per the analysts surveyed by S&P Global Platts, a leading independent commodities and energy data provider.

However, the decrease was significantly higher than both last year’s drop of 76 Bcf and the five-year (2012-2016) average net shrinkage of 99 Bcf for the reported week. Following past week’s decline – seventh withdrawal of the 2017-2018 winter heating season – the current storage level now stands at 3.126 trillion cubic feet (Tcf), 192 Bcf (5.8%) under the five-year average and the year-ago figure.

Fundamentally speaking, total supply of natural gas averaged around 82.4 Bcf per day, down slightly (around 1%) on a weekly basis due to lower production. Meanwhile, daily natural gas consumption jumped 23.6% to 137 Bcf.

The sharp increase in demand was triggered by a 39.1% surge in residential/commercial consumption on the back of cold temperatures engulfing much of the U.S. Moreover, natural gas consumption for power generation was up by 18.9% from the previous week.

Futures Slump Following EIA Data

Following EIA’s latest commentary, natural gas prices slumped around 5.4% last week to settle at $2.795 per MMBtu on Friday. Apart from the lower-than-anticipated draw, investors were spooked by forecasts for an end to the frigid cold snap going into the middle of January leading to decrease in the heating fuel’s demand.

Positive Long-Term Thesis

Despite occasional hiccups, the fundamentals of natural gas continue to be favorable in the long run, considering the secular shift to the cleaner burning fuel for power generation globally and in the Asia-Pacific region in particular.

The EIA predicts global demand for the commodity to grow from 340 Bcf per day in 2015 to 485 Bcf per day by 2040. Countries in Asia and in the Middle East – led by China’s transition away from coal – will account for most of this increase.

And it will be the world’s largest gas producer U.S., which will step up to meet this soaring demand. With domestic prices struggling to break the $3 per million Btu threshold, U.S. natural gas companies see a big opportunity in selling cheap U.S. production at higher prices to rest of the world. In fact, more than 50% of the domestic volume growth in the near future will be used for export in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). As per Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), the United States will vie with Australia and Qatar as the top LNG exporter by 2022.

Apart from the growing use of LNG and booming exports, the replacement of coal-fired power plants and higher consumption from industrial projects will likely ensure strong natural gas demand with price eventually settling well above $3.

The perceived price strength augurs well for natural gas-heavy upstream companies like Rex Energy Corp. (REXX - Free Report) , Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK - Free Report) , Southwestern Energy Company (SWN - Free Report) , WPX Energy (WPX - Free Report) , Antero Resources Corp. (AR - Free Report) and EQT Corp. (EQT - Free Report) .

Want to Own a Natural Gas Stock Now?

If you are looking for a near term natural gas play, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. (COG - Free Report) may be a good selection. This company actually has a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy). You can see the complete list of today’s Zacks #1 Rank (Strong Buy) stocks here.

Headquartered in Houston, TX, Cabot Oil & Gas is an energy exploration company with producing properties mainly in the continental U.S. Cabot focuses on high-impact natural gas-focused drilling in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. The upstream operator’s expected EPS growth rate for three to five years currently stands at 30%, comparing favorably with the industry's growth rate of 20.1%.

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