North American natural gas markets exhibit seasonal variation, with higher prices in winter because of increased heating demand. This seasonality of prices can be seen in natural gas futures contracts traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange, but the differences in prices at different times of the year has gotten smaller over time reflecting a decreasing seasonality to demand for the product, according to US Energy Information Administration figures.
Over the past four years, the spread between the natural gas price for delivery in February and for delivery in November has decreased from an average of 65 cents per million British thermal units, or MMBtu, in October 2010 trading to an average of 24 cents in October 2013. The price spread represents the market’s expectations of prices in the peak winter month, compared with prices in an autumn month, with a lower spread indicating less expected seasonal variation, the EIA says.
Several factors contributed to the reduction in seasonality in natural gas markets:
- Increased natural gas production, particularly in consuming regions like the Northeast, has put less strain on the amount of supply needed to be withdrawn from storage. Net withdrawals from inventory decreased during the winter of 2012-13 compared to the winter of 2010-11, despite higher levels of consumption and lower net imports, the EIA says.
- Gas displacement of coal for electricity generation has reduced seasonality of power sector gas use. However, when natural gas markets tighten, coal-fired power plants become more economically competitive than some natural gas-fired plants, releasing gas to other customers, the EIA says.
- Consumption in November through February as a share of yearly natural gas consumption has decreased from 41% in 2010-11 to 39% in 2012-13, demonstrating that natural gas consumption is increasing in other months of the year for other uses, such as electricity generation during the summer, the EIA says.
- Natural gas storage working capacity increased 2 percent in 2012, the EIA says.
The declining price spread suggests that market participants expect less seasonal variability in natural gas prices compared to previous years; however, the eventual price will often be determined more by supply and demand when the physical natural gas is sold, according to the EIA.
According to EIA figures released at the start of the year, average wholesale prices for natural gas fell significantly throughout the US in 2012 compared to 2011.
The agency says the average wholesale price for natural gas at Henry Hub in Erath, La., fell from an average $4.02 per MMBtu in 2011 to $2.77 per MMBtu in 2012 — the lowest average annual price at this key benchmark location since 1999.