The United States faces a natural gas supply shortfall this year despite the country's fracking boom, threatening more price spikes as energy companies struggle to replenish stockpiles drained to critically low levels after a brutal winter.
As the coldest winter in 30 years thaws across North America, some experts worry that stockpiles will not be refilled to levels high enough to meet demand next winter, causing supply disruptions and sudden price surges of the kind that have dented power company earnings and raised residential bills in recent months.
The concerns center on a set of extraordinary circumstances: stocks are at 11-year lows; flat futures prices make it uneconomic for utilities to hold onto gas and burn it later, and a fractured network of pipelines means gas in big producing regions, including the country's biggest Marcellus Shale play centered in Pennsylvania, is stranded away from storage caverns.
Forecasts of a hotter-than-average summer have raised worries that higher demand could add further strain on stockpiles.
To be sure, utility companies still have months to restock and production is growing. In the long term, a number of pipelines scheduled to come online later this year will help ease some of the bottleneck around the Marcellus.
But as the country continues to pump out record amounts of oil and gas from a fracking revolution that took off toward the end of the last decade, some experts say the industry should be more aware of the possibility of a worst-case scenario.
"People are not taking it seriously. The market seems to have become complacent," said Anthony Yuen, natgas analyst at Citigroup in New York.