One of the largest slices of the United States’ natural gas supply pie is underground storage. Natural gas withdrawals from storage during winter months and injections during summer help manage seasonal swings in demand, a critical feature of meeting physical supply needs as well as helping stabilize natural gas prices.
The critical importance of having adequate gas in place to meet winter heating demand is one reason market observers focus on storage volumes and gauge the pace of injections each summer.
After last winter’s polar vortex, which brought persistent cold and record natural gas demand, storage stocks hit troughs not touched in a decade. Given the depths that storage levels plunged by winter’s end, many observers wondered or even worried whether storage refills would put sufficient supplies in place for the following winter.
Well, the market responded and supplies have returned to a strong position. But what happened between then and now?
First is that natural gas production has continued to grow steadily. Dry gas production is up five percent or three Bcf per day during the past year (March through October). New production volumes mean more flowing gas is available for storage.
The second reason is that cooler summer weather eased demand. Summer temperatures were down four percent compared with 2013. Those areas of the country that happen to have the most storage fields, such as the Gulf Coast, Upper Midwest, Northeast and even the Mountain region, coincidentally saw steeper drops in temperatures year over year. Cooler weather meant less air conditioning and electric demand, which led to lower volumes of natural gas directed to power generation.
Regional Temperatures Relative to 2013
(May – Sept % Change in Cooling Degree Days)
The confluence of record production and reduced demand has led to a record injection season. Since the end of April, natural gas volumes directed into storage have averaged nearly 14 Bcf per day. This is a considerably strong pace of injections compared with the five-year average of only 10 Bcf per day.
So where does that put us? As of October 10, the U.S. has about 3,300 Bcf of working gas in storage. Before the end of the injection season, stocks are likely to climb to about 3,500 Bcf or perhaps even more. While this level is below last year’s pre-winter storage peak, which was about 3,800 Bcf, this amount of working gas in storage is still a healthy position for the market when additional production is factored in.
Production since June is about 2.3 Bcf per day above last winter’s average volumes. These incremental production volumes could serve an additional 350 Bcf or more though the winter. When considered alongside storage, the country’s natural gas supply portfolio is robust.
Recent reports suggest another polar vortex could be in store this winter. Weather prognostication is a tricky business, but either way the industry appears ready. Last year’s polar vortex was a stress test and the industry performed. Looking ahead toward this winter, the industry is capably poised yet again to meet another winter.