(Adds cash prices, updates futures prices)
NEW YORK, Oct 10 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures tradednearly flat early on Wednesday, with some follow-through buyingafter the previous day's modest rally underpinning pricesdespite milder Northeast and Midwest weather forecasts for nextweek that should slow demand.
The front-month contract, which posted a 2012 high of $3.546per million British thermal units early last week, has climbed22 percent in a little over two weeks as traders anticipated apick-up in demand this week from the season's first cold snap.
While reports on Tuesday that the 11- to 15-day weathermodel had turned colder drove prices up about 2 percent, tradersnoted that predictions out that far were unreliable and thechanges cited were small, with fairly mild weather stillexpected for most of the nation for at least the next two weeks.
"Some short-lived cooler variability was added to theforecast during early next week from the Midwest to East. Thiscomes in between surges of warmth for these same regions, whichstill dominate the pattern overall," private forecaster MDAEarthSat said in its morning report.
At 10:25 a.m. EDT (1425 GMT), front-month gas futures
on the New York Mercantile Exchange were up 0.7 cent at $3.474per mmBtu after trading between $3.448 and $3.511. Some deferredmonths declined slightly.
Early cash prices for Thursday delivery at Henry Hub
, a key supply point in Louisiana, climbed 8 cents to$3.26 per mmBtu, matching the 2012 high hit last Friday. Volumewas fairly light at about 510 million cubic feet.
Early Hub differentials were pegged at about 21 cents underNYMEX, down from a 15-cent discount on Tuesday.
Day-ahead prices for gas on the Transco pipeline at the NewYork citygate
rose 6 cents to $3.46 on the coolThursday outlook. Volume was also light at about 170 mmcf.
Nuclear plant outages have lent some support to prices. Theroughly 20,000 megawatts of nuclear generation offline formaintenance this week have added about 600 million cubic feet,or nearly 1 percent, to daily gas demand, according to data fromThomson Reuters Analytics.
But despite recent gains, most fundamental traders remainskeptical of the upside. Inventories are at record highs forthis time of year, production is at or near an all-time peak andmilder temperatures are expected soon to slow overall demand.
Competition from low-priced coal may also be weighing onsentiment. As gas prices pushed well above $3 over the last twoweeks, they became less competitive with coal and may haveprompted some utilities that were burning cheaper gas for powergeneration to switch back.
Most analysts agree gas prices need to be well below $3 thisautumn to maintain switching demand. Loss of that demand, whichhelped prop up gas prices all summer, could force more gas intoalready-packed inventories.
There are also concerns that if gas prices move much higher,producers could opt to hook up wells that have been drilled butnot flowing because gas prices below $3 were unattractive.
STORAGE BUILDS PICK UP
U.S. Energy Information Administration data last week showedthat domestic gas inventories for the week ended Sept. 28 roseby 77 billion cubic feet to 3.653 trillion cubic feet.
At 86 percent full, storage is hovering at a level notnormally reached until the last week of October and offers ahuge cushion that can help offset any weather-related spikes indemand or supply disruptions from storms.
Injection estimates for Thursday's EIA report range from 75bcf to 98 bcf, with most in the low or mid-80s. Stocks rose anadjusted 108 bcf during the same week last year, while thefive-year average increase for that week is 84 bcf.
Inventories are still at record highs for this time of yearand likely to end the stock-building season above last year'sall-time peak of 3.852 tcf.
Drilling for natural gas has been in a near-steady declinefor the last year, with the gas-directed rig count down some 53percent since last October and posting a 13-year low just twoweeks ago.
But so far, production has shown few, if any, signs ofslowing.
While dry gas drilling has become largely uneconomical atcurrent prices, gas produced from more-profitable shale oil andshale gas liquids wells has kept output near record highs.
(Reporting by Joe Silha; Editing by Dale Hudson)
Keywords: MARKETS NYMEX/NATGAS