Commodities & Metals

Natural Gas Soars on Cold Snap Woes

This week’s cold snap and freak snow storms pushed natural gas futures up more than 10% on Wednesday. That is terrible for consumers who may see their heating bills soar from more usage and possibly higher prices.

Natural gas futures for March delivery settled up 52.4 cents to $5.465 per million British thermal units (BTUs), on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That is a 10.6% gain. The price had reached as high as $5.486 per million BTU before dropping back to $5.261 Thursday morning. Still, gas is up 29% so far in January after a 26% gain in 2013.

It is not, however, as high as the levels seen in 2005, when prices hit $15.

The big jump has given a small boost to natural gas stocks. But they have not moved much this month. That is due in part to the expectation that gas demand will fall once winter morphs into spring. Plus, many investors expect supplies of gas to swell thanks to hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. That technique has allowed producers to tap into heretofore difficult reserves deep underground.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. (NYSE: CHK), the nation’s largest independent gas producer, was up 41 cents to $27.17. That is little changed from its December 31 close of $27.14. EOG Resources Inc. (NYSE: EOG), one of the best-managed gas producers, was down $2.57 to $164.65. Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: APC) is up 18 cents to $81.29.

One reason the stocks have done little is the market overall has struggled this month, reflecting concerns about the economy. Plus, the stocks had big gains in 2013 as fracking caught the attention of investors. Fracking also has gained the attention of critics who believe the oil-and-gas industry is understating the potential harm to local environments.

Still, Chesapeake is up 63% since the end of 2012. EOG is up 36.3% in the same time frame. Anadarko is up 9.3%.

Weather, however, is not the friend of gas producers. Spring and summer will come, and prices will fall.

But there is big and growing demand for natural gas for domestic markets. In addition, there are opportunities to export gas from the United States.

Producers that appear best positioned to benefit from the growing demand include not only Chesapeake, EOG and Anadarko, but Continental Resources Inc. (NYSE: CLR), Range Resources Corp. (NYSE: RRC) and mighty Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM).

The big freeze that paralyzed Atlanta Tuesday and Wednesday, with motorists stranded on freeways and school children unable to get home, may ease toward the end of the week. Temperatures in the New York City area on Wednesday were in the low 20s. They may reach 40 by Sunday evening at the kickoff of the Super Bowl football game between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.