As temperatures plunge anew into single digits across much of the U.S. Northeast, natural gas prices have been going in the opposite direction. On Jan. 22, thermostats in New York City bottomed out at 7 degrees, a day after the price to deliver natural gas into the city spiked to a record $120 per million British Thermal Units in the spot market on the outskirts of town. That’s about 30 times more expensive than what the equivalent amount of gas cost a hundred miles away in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, the biggest natural gas field in the U.S. and home to some of the lowest gas prices in the world. And you thought this was the age of cheap energy.
Most of the natural gas that gets used in the U.S. is contracted on a long-term basis and bought with futures and forward contracts, meaning that many consumers in the Northeast won’t feel the full brunt of that price spike. They’re not entirely insulated though. The spot market is there for a reason. Essentially, it’s a refuge for the desperate and unprepared—for those who need to buy or sell immediately. And when a natural gas-fired power plant or a big utility finds itself short, having underestimated the amount of demand it has to fill, its traders and schedulers have to jump into the spot market and pay whatever the going price is. For those buying in parts of the Northeast, it’s been reaching new highs.