Natural gas soars as cold grips U.S.

By JONATHAN FAHEY Associated Press Published:

NEW YORK -- The frigid winter of 2014 is setting the price of natural gas on fire.

Friday, the price in the futures market soared to $5.18 per 1,000 cubic feet, up 10 percent to the highest level in three and a half years. The price of natural gas is up 29 percent in two weeks, and is 50 percent higher than last year at this time.

Record amounts of natural gas are being burned for heat and electricity. Meanwhile, it's so cold that drillers are struggling to produce enough to keep up with the high demand. So much natural gas is coming out of storage that the Energy Department says supplies have fallen 20 percent below a year ago -- and that was before this latest cold spell.

"We've got record demand, record withdrawals from storage, and short-term production is threatened," said energy analyst Stephen Schork. "It's a dangerous market right now."

Natural gas and electric customers are sure to see somewhat higher rates in the coming months. But they will be insulated from sharp increases because regulators often force natural gas and electric utilities to use financial instruments and fuel-buying strategies that protect residential customers from high volatility.

To understand the price increase, just look at the thermometer. A second major cold snap this month is gripping much of the country, including the heavily-populated Northeast. And forecasters are now predicting colder weather in the weeks to come, extending south through Texas.

Analysts say there is plenty of gas to replenish supplies, and drillers will likely ramp up production so they can fetch prices they haven't seen since June of 2010.

That could push prices back down somewhat in the coming weeks. If, that is, the weather warms up later in February and March. If it's still cold when baseball season opens in early April, though, Schork says, "we'll be looking at much higher natural gas prices."

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