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Colder winter this year boosts energy prices

New York

FREEZING weather that has gripped large parts of the northern hemisphere is delivering a winter blessing for oil, gas and coal prices, as suppliers meet a surge in heating demand.

Temperatures across much of Europe and Asia are well below normal, and forecasters expect them to stay there for most of January. The chill is supporting oil prices, which are holding above US$50 a barrel, while the profit from turning crude into diesel climbed in Europe to the most since August in recent weeks, as consumers - many stuck working from home because of a resurgent virus - burn more heating fuel.

The weather is especially severe in north-east Asia. In Japan, a major refiner said December demand was expected to be 7 per cent ahead of last year, and South Korea last week considered a plan to tap state reserves to meet soaring consumption. In China, heating demand has so stretched power supply that factories have bought diesel generators to keep the lights on.

Beyond oil, colder temperatures in Asia have depleted natural gas inventories, resulting in a spot deal above benchmark records this week, and thermal coal in China has also surged as the cold snap intensified an existing power crunch.

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"Winter weather is going to provide a huge boost to heating demand in the residential and commercial sectors," said Edmund Siau, a Singapore-based analyst at energy consultant FGE.

It is a very different picture to a year ago, when Europe had its hottest winter on record and North Asia enjoyed milder temperatures. By some estimates that shaved 800,000 barrels a day, or almost one per cent, from global oil demand last January, a month when Asian liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices slumped.

China's cold wave saw the December average temperature fall to the lowest since 2013, and the country's Meteorological Administration has warned of a further sharp drop in eastern areas in coming days. European capitals are also shivering, with temperatures in London more than five degrees Celsius below average, and six deg C below the 30-year normal in Madrid, said Maxar, a space technology company.

Power consumption in China increased by 11 per cent in December, more than double the growth in the same month a year earlier, said the National Development and Reform Commission.

LNG is selling near record levels in North Asia as the rising demand outstrips available supplies, while deliveries of the fuel to Asia jumped by almost 9 per cent in December compared to last year, ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg showed. Last month, China's largest importers of the fuel sent notices to customers warning of tightening supplies amid record-setting withdrawals from gas storage sites.

"Colder temperatures are proving supportive for LNG prices in Asia, at a time when prices have already trended higher next to a global oil price rebound and tight supplies," said Peter Lee, a senior oil and gas analyst at Fitch Solutions.

While prices will retreat as seasonal demand eases, there is a bullish outlook through 2021 on a post-pandemic recovery and as green energy policies improve adoption of the fuel across industries, he added.

European gas prices jumped to the highest level since January 2019 earlier this week, and the fuel is being taken from storage facilities at a faster pace, showed data from Gas Infrastructure Europe. Storage levels in Germany, Europe's biggest gas consumer, slipped to the lowest since the winter of 2016-2017, and will likely mean there is also higher demand in the northern summer to replenish the stocks.

Higher power demand in China, coupled with safety problems in mining regions and import curbs, has also seen thermal coal prices surge to record highs. Some factory owners have turned to diesel generators after grid operators rationed electricity to industrial and commercial users to ensure sufficient supplies for homes.

Chinese wholesale diesel prices rose late last month to the highest level since April, showed data from the country's National Bureau of Statistics.

In Japan, spot power prices hit a historic high for the fourth straight day on Tuesday, amid strong demand and as utilities were forced to curb generation at gas-fired power plants due to lower-than-normal inventories.

Japan's biggest refiner Eneos last month said demand for kerosene - a major home heating fuel in some parts of Asia - would jump as a direct result of the colder-than-normal weather. Kerosene is very similar to jet fuel, providing a salve to a corner of the oil market most affected by the virus - commercial aviation.

To be sure, there is a different outlook in the United States, where current mild weather across the north-east, which accounts for the vast majority of the nation's heating oil consumption, is limiting demand. Supply is also being swelled as refiners put jet fuel into the distillates pool.

US natural gas prices have plunged about 20 per cent since peaking on Oct 30, making the fuel the worst performer among major commodities as hopes for a frigid winter faded.

Heating demand has trailed long-term averages in eight of the past 10 weeks, showed data published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service, leading traders to slash their bullish gas bets on the New York Mercantile Exchange. BLOOMBERG

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