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PRICE OF NATURAL GAS FUTURES CLIMBS AMID FORECASTS FOR A CHILL

SHARE PRICE OF NATURAL GAS FUTURES CLIMBS AMID FORECASTS FOR A CHILL

Natural gas futures prices rushed to a six-week high Friday on the New York Mercantile Exchange amid forecasts for frigid weather in the Northeast and Midwest.

On other commodity markets, crude oil futures fell; precious metals dropped; grains and soybeans were mixed; and livestock and meat futures were mixed.Natural gas for February delivery climbed 6.2 cents in New York to $2.156 per 1,000 cubic feet, the contract's highest settlement since Nov. 25.

Light sweet crude oil for February delivery fell 10 cents to $15.32 a barrel; February heating oil rose 0.52 cent to 48.17 cents a gallon; February unleaded gasoline rose 0.17 cent to 43.82 cents a gallon.

Cold temperatures since Christmas time have helped reverse the price trend in the natural gas market. Prices fell in December due to large stored supplies and relatively mild late-autumn weather.

Storage levels as of Dec. 31 were still slightly above those of a year ago and the four-year average, "but with the cold weather we've had this week, the psychology is that we'll drop below," said David Pruner, president of KCS Energy Risk Management Inc. in Edison N.J.

Below-average temperatures were expected this weekend in the Midwest and Northeast, and the National Weather Service predicted readings much below average in those regions during the latter half of next week.

"The weather in January is turning out to be considerably colder than had been thought a month or so ago," said William O'Neill, senior futures strategist at Merrill Lynch.

Pruner said natural gas prices also were helped by a recovery in crude oil prices from less than $14 to more than $15 a barrel in recent weeks. Higher petroleum prices discourage big natural gas users like electric utilities from switching to oil.

Silver for March delivery plunged 11.2 cents on New York's Commodity Exchange to $5.025 a troy ounce; February gold sank $2.90 to $387.20 a troy ounce.

O'Neill said silver weakened on technical factors and reduced prospects for a Saudi currency devaluation. Middle Eastern investors had been buying silver as a hedge against a possible currency devaluation.