Natural gas prices have surged more than 35% in the past month, as worries grow there is not enough gas stored up for the winter should temperatures be especially cold in the northern hemisphere.
The usually quiet market for the commodity has become hot in the last couple of weeks, as investors focus on the growth in demand around the world and supplies remain below normal. The biggest problem area is Europe, where supply is at a record low for this time of year.
Even in the U.S., the amount of gas in storage is 7.6% below the five-year average, according to recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural gas is an important heating fuel and is responsible for about 35% of power generation in the U.S., the federal agency found.
“People are starting to throw the ‘crisis’ word around” when it comes to Europe, said John Kilduff, partner with Again Capital. He said natural gas in storage in Europe is 16% below the five-year average, and the level in storage is a record low for September.
“Europe is squarely behind the eight ball going into the winter season. It’s going to put the focus on this commodity that’s been overlooked for the last several years,” said Kilduff.
The tipping point could come in several months when it becomes clear what type of winter is ahead for Europe, and also the U.S. Some analysts say in an extreme scenario, U.S. prices could double if there is an extended cold spell, particularly in Europe where shortages could get severe.
“If the winter is mildly cold, it’s going to be problematic for sure,” said Francisco Blanch, head of commodities and derivatives strategy at Bank of America.
Rising prices for natural gas
Natural gas futures for October jumped nearly 5.3% Monday, to about $5.20 per one million British thermal units, or mmBtus. Natural gas is up 106% year-to-date and is the highest in more than seven years. But the equivalent gas in Europe and Asian markets is upwards of $20 per mmBtus.
“The U.S. is supposed to be an island, but in the last three or four years, there’s an increasing link between the U.S. and global market,” Blanch said. “We’ve gone from 50% correlation to 95% correlation. The U.S. market is being dragged around by this.”
The U.S. has been exporting natural gas, in the form of liquified natural gas shipments. The shipments have grown to about 10% of U.S. production, analysts said. South Korea is the largest customer, followed by China and Japan, according to U.S. government data. But buyers also include Brazil India, Poland, Spain, France and Portugal.