* Front futures stage technical bounce after recent slide
* Chilly temperatures hit key consuming regions, stir demand
* Comfortable inventories, record production limit gains
* Coming Up: EIA, Enerdata natgas storage data on Thursday (Adds analyst comment, performance data, updates futures and cash prices)
By Joe Silha
NEW YORK, Oct 23 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures ended higher for the first time in three sessions on Wednesday on short covering after a steep slide early this week and on forecasts for chilly weather next week that should boost demand.
Front-month futures, which posted a four-month high of $3.869 per mmBtu last Wednesday but finished the week down 0.3 percent, lost nearly 5 percent in the previous two sessions, breaking some key chart support along the way.
But some technical traders cautioned that the market was oversold and due for a bounce, particularly with colder weather around and ahead of Thursday’s weekly inventory report.
“The market may be trying to price in (storage) expectations for tomorrow, and it looks like weather models turned a bit colder, at least for the next week,” said Ben Smith, president at First Enercast Financial in Denver, Colorado.
Front-month gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange ended up 3.8 cents, or 1.1 percent, at $3.619 per million British thermal units, after trading between $3.577 and $3.639. The nearby contract fell to a two-week low at $3.573 on Tuesday and is still down 3.9 percent this week.
While some traders expected the colder weather that moved into the Midwest and East this week to underpin prices, others noted that the outlook for early November had turned milder. In addition, they noted that inventories remain comfortable and production was still flowing at or near a record-high pace.
Commodity Weather Group said it continued to monitor the impressive early season cold snap this week in the Midwest and East but said that computer models were slowly unwinding that pattern by late next week and in the 11- to 15-day range.
Traders and analysts polled by Reuters expect an increase of 79 billion cubic feet when the U.S. Energy Information Administration on Thursday releases weekly inventory data for the week ended Oct. 18.
That would be well above the 64 bcf build seen a year ago and the five-year average increase of 67 bcf for that week.
EIA storage data released Tuesday showed that total gas inventories for the week ended Oct. 11 rose by 77 bcf to 3.654 trillion cubic feet, 3.1 percent below last year’s record highs at that time but 1.6 percent above the five-year average. That report was delayed by the government shutdown.
The Baker Hughes gas drilling rig count has increased in 10 of the last 17 weeks, stirring talk that new pipelines and processing plants may be encouraging producers to pump more gas into an already well-supplied market.
The EIA expects U.S. gas production to hit a record high in 2013 for the third straight year.
In the ICE cash market, gas for Thursday delivery at Henry Hub GT-HH-IDX, the benchmark supply point in Louisiana, slipped 4 cents to $3.66, but late Hub differentials were flat from Tuesday at about 4 cents over NYMEX.
Gas on Transco pipeline at the New York citygate E-TSCO6NY-IDX was unchanged at $3.94 on the cold Thursday outlook, while Chicago MC-CHICIT-IDX was 2 cents lower at $3.93.
For daily ICE U.S. cash gas prices click on <0#GAS-IDX=ICE>
Data from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission showed about 17,200 megawatts, or 18 percent of U.S. capacity, was offline on Wednesday, down from 17,300 MW out on Tuesday, 26,200 MW out a year ago and a five-year average outage rate of 20,700 MW. (Editing by Maureen Bavdek, Chizu Nomiyama, Bob Burgdorfer and Alden Bentley)