By SANDY SHORE, AP Business Writer–8 hours ago

Battered natural gas prices are getting a bit of a break as cooler spring weather raises expectations that demand may improve.

Natural gas rose 6 cents to finish at $2.186 per 1,000 cubic feet in Friday trading. That’s up nearly 15 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, parts of the Midwest and the Rockies this weekend 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 six 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.

With May upon us, 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 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 that boosts electricity demand for cooling.

“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 energy trading, oil prices rose slightly, as traders shrugged off a report that 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 said Friday that the economy grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the January-March quarter, compared with 3 percent in the final quarter of 2011.

Benchmark oil rose 38 cents to end at $104.93 per barrel in New York. Brent crude fell 9 cents to finish at $119.83 per barrel in London. Heating oil lost 1.37 cents to end at $3.1807 per gallon and gasoline futures rose 2.29 cents to finish at $3.2062 per gallon.

At the pump, gasoline prices were little changed at a national average of $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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Natural Gas Market

May 30, 2009

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Apr 30, 2009

As was the case with other industries that have been deregulated, natural gas deregulation has resulted in competition which helps lower the cost of natural gas and increase customer choices.

Deregulation is the process of lessening the amount of government restrictions an oversight applied to private companies. The natural gas industry has been gradually deregulated over the past ten years.

Before deregulation, utilities charged their customers for all the necessary steps to get the natural gas from the gas well to the customer’s home or business. This included purchasing the natural gas, delivering it to the customer, measuring the customer’s use,providing emergency service, and billing the customer.

One effect of deregulation has been that customers may now choose to purchase only part of the full line of services that are offered by the utility. This ability to choose is called
unbundling. The complete package of services has been unbundled so that a customer can choose to separate the gas purchasing transaction from the delivery — or transport — transaction.

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