Feb 12 (Reuters) - Unusually low U.S. natural gas inventories and delays in new cross-border pipeline capacity could slow exports this year to Mexico, which is heavily dependent on its northern neighbor for the fuel, analysts said on Monday.
Frigid temperatures led to a record withdrawal of 359 billion cubic feet (bcf) in the week ended Jan. 5 and the second highest draw of 288 bcf in week to Jan. 19, pushing inventories far below the five-year average.
U.S. gas stockpiles are at 2.078 trillion cubic feet (tcf), about 16 percent below the five-year average of 2.471 tcf for this time of year. That is the lowest amount of gas in storage for the corresponding period since 2014.
Over the past 30 days, U.S. exports to Mexico via pipelines have averaged 3.93 billion cubic feet per day (bcfd), lower than the 4.03 bcfd during the same period a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters data.
Analysts said on the back of weak inventory levels, operators would put more gas into rebuilding storage than exporting them away, thus hampering shipments to Mexico.
"Storage operators in the U.S. will find it difficult to fully replenish the country's gas inventories during the 2018 gas injection season, which has the potential to adversely impact gas and LNG exports from the U.S. during periods of peak demand," said Abhishek Kumar, senior energy analyst at Interfax Energy's Global Gas Analytics in London.
Delays in the cross-border Nueva Era pipeline also underscores the near-term challenges for Mexico to increase U.S. gas pipeline imports, according to a report by analysts at Mizuho Energy.
The joint venture between Howard Energy Partners and Mexico's Grupo Clisa is expected to transport over 0.6 bcfd of U.S. gas to end-users in and around Monterrey, Mexico, according to Howard Energy Partners website.
The company originally targeted an in-service date of June 2017. But the start date has been delayed until third quarter of 2018, Howard Energy spokeswoman Meredith Hargrove Howard said.
"Exports to Mexico are effectively limited by available infrastructure," said Robert DiDona of Energy Ventures Analysis.
"For now, the market is awaiting the completion of the Nueva Era pipeline ... as well as other downstream pipelines in Mexico."
(Reporting by Swati Verma in Bengaluru; editing by Scott DiSavino and Marguerita Choy)