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Natural gas price spikes, topping $5 for 1st time since 2010

Natural gas prices spiked to a three-and-a-half year high on Friday as a surge in demand for the heating fuel and extent of the extreme cold spell across much of the country has led to concerns about whether there will be ample U.S. supplies to last through this winter.

NYMEX natural gas futures for February delivery skyrocketed nearly 10 percent to $5.182 per million British Thermal Units, the highest settlement price since June 2010. The price continued to gain in after-hours electronic trading.

Natural gas futures have now rallied more than 5 percent in each of the past three trading days and have gained nearly 20 percent so far this year. Meanwhile, cash prices for natural gas in the Northeast hit record levels this week - topping $135 in the New York and New Jersey area -- due to pipeline issues.

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Weather forecasts indicate that the severe cold that is blanketing much of the country will stretch into the first part of next month. Heating demand is already as much as five times higher than normal for this time of year, according to some reports. Traders say production "freeze-offs" at drilling sites, pipeline disruptions, delivery issues and a resulting "panic" in the cash market has provided a considerable boost to natural gas futures.

"The market continues to factor in strong seasonal demand and rapidly shrinking inventories, which have spurred concerns of very tight supplies come the end of withdrawal season," wrote Addison Armstrong, senior director of market research at Tradition Energy in Stamford, Conn., in a note to clients. Weekly withdrawals of natural gas inventories have hit record levels in recent weeks. Armstrong, who predicts natural gas futures will average $4.10 this year, estimates natural gas supplies will end this winter season at a five-year low, between 1.1 trillion and 1.4 trillion cubic feet.

The impact of rising natural gas prices on many consumers could be significant. About half of the households across the country heat their homes with this fuel. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts consumers on average will pay $665 for natural gas this winter, about 10 percent more than they paid to heat their homes last winter. However, with the record cold spell across the East Coast, traders and analysts predicted heating bills for some consumers could be higher. The EIA predicts consumers in the Northeast could spend as much as $1,037 on natural gas this winter, a 17 percent jump over last year.

Yet, some consumers may not feel the pinch as much as the recent price spikes indicate. Utilities usually lock in contracts for natural gas well ahead of the winter. However, "some utilities are better hedging than others so some may have purchased natural gas for this winter season when prices were much lower, others may be stuck paying higher prices," Armstrong said.

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"Even with what's happening now in the natural gas market, most utilities and consumers have locked in natural gas prices for this winter," agreed trader Alan Harry, CEO and portfolio manager of the Spartan Commodity Fund. "But a steel mill or utility company or large office building, warehouse or factory that buys natural gas on the spot market will be feeling the dollar-for-dollar increase as they purchase their contracts, unless they have locked in longer-term contracts to supply them through the winter."