Energy futures were broadly higher Tuesday as traders re-entered the commodities market at low prices after the previous session's sizable dip. The May light sweet crude contract edged ahead 38 cents to close at $61.89 a barrel at the New York Mercantile Exchange. Reformulated gasoline finished 2 cents higher at $2.12 a gallon, and heating oil was up 4 cents to $1.86 a gallon. Natural gas advanced more than 4% to close at $7.87 per million British thermal units. A blast of cold weather blanketing much of the country since the first of April is largely responsible for the rise in natural gas prices, according to Phil Flynn, senior analyst at Alaron Trading. Also supporting the gains are concerns over tight supplies as companies refill their storage tanks after the winter's withdrawals, as well as a recent study predicting an above-normal hurricane season for the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. However, incorrect predictions made since Hurricane Katrina have reduced the effect that storm forecasts have on natural gas prices. "Every year that goes by after Hurricane Katrina, the hurricane premium built into natural gas prices gets smaller," Flynn says. "If forecasters are incorrect this year after missing big last year, they will likely reassume their old role as fortune-tellers."
Energy prices were down sharply Monday, with the May crude oil contract falling more than 4%. An apparent decrease in geopolitical risk following Iran's release of 15 British detainees was largely behind the plunge in prices, according to analysts. The entire futures curve for crude oil took a slide during the session. However, the near-term contract fell considerably farther than the June contract. That suggests traders' worries about immediate global instability receded once the British sailors were released, whereas longer-term risks persist, says Brandon DiTullio, a commodities broker at Nextsource Trading. Over the weekend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran's nuclear program is now functioning "on an industrial scale." His rhetoric was "extremely bullish," and doesn't appear to be adequately priced in to the crude futures curve, DiTullio says. Tensions also continue to build in Nigeria, where the country's election commission has barred the sitting vice president from running in the April 21 election. The matter will be settled by Nigeria's Supreme Court, but many analysts say that a delay in the election is likely. Violence in Nigeria's oil producing delta region has spiked in recent months as competing parties prepared for the upcoming elections. Nearly 500,000 barrels a day of oil capacity is currently offline. Analysts at Barclays Capital Research say this isn't the time for energy traders to be bearish. "With the fundamental balance of the oil market continuing to look extremely tight ... we expect the downside risk from current levels to be limited and prices to recover to the mid-60s before too long," analysts wrote in a report.
Meanwhile, energy stocks were mostly stronger. The CBOE Oil Index edged 1.1% higher to 670.19. ConocoPhillips ( COP) advanced 1.5% to $69.45, and Chevron ( CVX) closed up 2.1% at $77.04. Exxon Mobil ( XOM) moved 1% higher to $77.57. Ferris Baker Watts upgraded shares of Tortoise Energy ( TYY) and Tortoise Energy Infrastructure ( TYG) to buy from neutral, giving both stocks a lift, to $30.89 and $39.70, respectively. E&P firm Gasco Energy ( GSX) dove 18% to $1.96 after it was downgraded by Wachovia to market perform from outperform and the company set plans to sell 10 million shares to the public.