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United States natural gas inventories in the key Producing Region at end winter draw season 2011-12 broke records for that time of year. At their low point on 3/9/12, Producing Region working gas inventory of 965bcf soared about 40.5 percent beyond winter 2010-11’s 687bcf and winter 2008-09’s 690bcf. The new record plateau for the end of draw season blasts 123.9 percent above the end draw season average (1994-2011). Producing Region inventories remain sky- high. On 4/20/12 they were 1041bcf. These jump 31.9 percent above last year’s level at this time (789bcf; 4/20/11). When 2012 natural gas build season ends this autumn, stockpiles probably will be lofty relative to long run history.

It is a truism that much can (and will) happen in the natural gas supply/demand battlefield and related theaters between now and the close of 2012 build season. Assume normal summer weather and continued modest American economic growth. Many marketplace generals declare that brimming inventories definitely or almost certainly will cause the Producing Region (“PR”) to suffer notable containment (“overflow”, “overcapacity”) problems this fall. Not only gas and power trading insiders, but also numerous Main Street spectators and assorted political guardians, fervently speak of the explosive gas production increase of the past few years. Because end winter 2011-12 PR gas inventory already stood high in arithmetic (bcf) terms, PR stockpile increases at around the average historical rate (1994-2011 era) during 2012 gas build season will stretch capacity in this key territory.

The PR indeed faces significant containment risks. By end build season 2012, these risks may burst into actual physical problems for much of the region. However, an alternative scenario is more likely. For the PR area as a whole, although the containment challenge probably will be a very close call, the region probably will scrape by. In any event, and as of now, an excessive inventory relative to available storage situation throughout the PR is significantly less certain than many proclaim.

Why question the widespread faith that the PR containment problem will be severe and widespread? Gas demand is rising. Substantial fuel switching from coal to natural gas has occurred and likely will continue. Despite the recent shale gas boom, as well as gas production associated with crude oil output in some locations, US natural gas production growth (overall output) may be less than sentinels forecast. Not only are prices still depressed. The US gas rig count has retreated dramatically.

A crucial consideration for the containment debate in the PR (and elsewhere) is the amount of gas storage available around the time of build season inventory peak. Admittedly, any current viewpoint on US gas storage capacity for the end of build season 2012 is quite conjectural. Nevertheless, relative to the most recent Energy Information Agency (“EIA”) estimates of demonstrated peak working gas storage capacity, sufficient storage in the PR probably has been and will be created to avoid a significant containment problem this autumn.

To assess the likelihood of severe containment problems throughout the Producing Region (and related natural gas price implications), the crucial issue therefore is how much natural gas storage probably has been and will be constructed (developed) since April 2011 (the most current EIA overview).

Despite some seasonal tendency for prices to finish a bear move (or end an important stage in a downtrend) in late summer or autumn, it does not follow that prices drop off a cliff from the preceding end winter (or early spring) without an interim rally. The price could make a low, rise for a few months, and then drop to make a bottom in (for example) late August or calendar September.

FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW to download this market essay as a PDF file.
Natural Gas Inventory- the Producing Region Story (5-1-12)