Natural gas at 52-week low

NEW YORK — Natural gas prices have slumped well below what they were last year, and that trend will likely continue into 2010.

NEW YORK — Natural gas prices have slumped well below what they were last year, and that trend will likely continue into 2010.

The New York Mercantile Exchange contract for January delivery at one point dropped to a new 52-week low of US$4.432 per 1,000 cubic feet on Thursday.

The U.S. government then reported that the amount of natural gas in storage rose again, surprising most energy experts. The United States has never had this much natural gas in storage.

At this time of year, natural gas supplies are getting smaller as people turn on the heat in their homes.

That’s not happening this year because the winter has been so mild. Instead, more gas was placed into storage last week, the first time that has happened this late in the year since at least 2001.

The salt caverns and other places where the U.S. stores natural gas are near or at capacity because major industrial power users have been shuttering plants or slowing production. The Energy Information Administration said Thursday that natural gas stocks have set new national records for seven consecutive weeks.

For consumers, that likely means an extended period of cheap energy, though how long that will go on is not clear. But heating bills will be cheaper in most places and power companies that use natural gas also will feel less pressure to raise electricity rates.

Oil prices also fell despite promising jobs numbers. Benchmark crude for January delivery gave up 14 cents to settle at $76.46 a barrel on Nymex. In London, Brent crude for January delivery rose 48 cents to settle at $78.36 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

The U.S. Labour Department said Thursday the number of newly laid-off workers dropped unexpectedly to the lowest level since the week of Sept. 6, 2008.

Still, the U.S. continues to sip at its petroleum reserves as millions of laid off workers have stayed out of the morning commute. Oil companies are finding it easier to store crude and deliver it later when demand has hopefully picked up.

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