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NEW YORK: US natural gas futures rose to a seven-year high on Thursday as production remains slow to recover after Hurricane Ida battered the Gulf Coast, despite forecasts for less hot weather next week and a bigger than expected storage build last week.

Since Ida started targeting the US Gulf Coast in late August, gas futures have surged over 25% due mostly to the combination of low Gulf of Mexico production, rising liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports continued hot weather across much of the country. That heat has been especially extreme in the US West, where another heat wave is baking California.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said utilities added 52 billion cubic feet (bcf) of gas into storage during the week ended Sept. 3. That was more than the 40-bcf build analysts forecast in a Reuters poll and compares with an increase of 65 bcf in the same week last year and a five-year (2016-2020) average increase of 65 bcf.

Last week's injection boosted stockpiles to 2.923 trillion cubic feet (tcf), or 7.4% below the five-year average of 3.158 tcf for this time of year. That means US utilities have stored less gas than normal for the winter heating season when demand for the fuel peaks.

Front-month gas futures rose 11.7 cents, or 2.4%, to settle at $5.031 per million British thermal units (mmBtu), their highest close since February 2014 for a second day in a row. On Wednesday, the contract soared almost 8%.

In the power market, prices for Thursday topped $300 per megawatt hour (MWh) at the Mid Columbia (Mid C) hub in Washington State and at Palo Verde in Arizona, and over $200 at South Path 15 (SP-15) in Southern California as consumers crank up their air conditioners to escape another heat wave. Those are the highest prices for Mid C since July, Palo Verde since June and SP-15 since February. The California Independent System Operator (ISO), which operates the power grid for most of California, declared a flex alert for Wednesday and Thursday evenings, urging consumers to conserve energy when solar power stops working as the sun goes down and the drought-parched grid becomes more reliant on gas-fired generators and imports from other states that are also suffering from the heat wave.

In the next-day gas market, meanwhile, prices at several hubs rose to their highest level since the February freeze struck Texas, including the PG&E and Southern California citygates in California, Dominion South in southwestern Pennsylvania and New York.

Data provider Refinitiv said gas output in the US Lower 48 states had fallen from an average of 92.0 billion cubic feet per day (bcfd) in August to 89.6 bcfd so far in September, with most of the losses in the Gulf Coast area. That compares with an all-time monthly high of 95.4 bcfd in November 2019.

Refinitiv projected average US gas demand, including exports, would hold near 86.9 bcfd this week and next. The forecast for next week was lower than Refinitiv projected on Wednesday as a cooler outlook will cause power generators to burn less gas to keep air conditioners humming. The amount of gas flowing to US LNG export plants has risen from an average of 10.5 bcfd in August to 10.7 bcfd so far in September as buyers around the world buy all the super-chilled gas the United States can produce. That compares with a record 11.5 bcfd in April.

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