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Natural Gas Prices Drop

Stocks in this article: XOM CVX SU

WASHINGTON ( TheStreet) -- Natural gas prices tumbled Thursday, ending the session nearly 3% lower after the government said inventory levels rose largely as expected last week.

Natural gas storage levels in the lower 48 states added 31 billion cubic feet last week, the Energy Information Administration said Thursday. The rise in stocks, which comes amid warmer temperatures and resulting dampened demand, landed right in line with a Platts projection estimating an injection of between 29 billion to 33 billion cubic feet.

The government also said storage levels stood at 1.669 trillion cubic feet last week, a subtle 0.1% below levels from last year and 12.1% higher than the average over the last five years.

The May natural gas contract lost 11 cents, or 2.7%, to settle at $3.91 per million British thermal units after falling as low as $3.86 during the session.

Crude oil, which rallied to settle near $87 a barrel earlier this week, continued its pause Thursday after the EIA reported a larger than expected supply build on Wednesday. During the morning session, stocks traded lower after a weak initial jobless claims report and Greece debt woes put pressure on the major averages. By the afternoon session, however, investors managed to put concerns behind them, and stocks moved into positive territory, where they held to the close.

After trading as low as $84.38 a barrel, the May crude contract settled 49 cents lower, or down by 0.6%, at $85.39 a barrel.

Oil stocks finished the session mostly higher with Exxon Mobil (XOM), Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) and PetroChina (PTR) all up by roughly 1%. ConocoPhillips (COP) and Suncor Energy (SU) gained 2% or more, while Chevron (CVX) added 0.4%.

The NYSE Arca Oil index improved 0.7%. The Philadelphia Oil Service Sector index, however, lost 0.3%, as shares for Nabors Industries (NBR), National Oilwell Varco (NOV) and Oceaneering International (OII) each tumbled more than 1%.

In an upside move, shares of EOG Resources (EOG) gained another 3.1% to $106.96 after UBS raised price targets and estimates . EOG announced "significant" oil finds in South Texas, North Dakota and Colorado on Wednesday. In a press statement, CEO Mark Papa said the South Texas discovery "will prove to be one of the most significant United States oil discoveries in the past 40 years."

Barclays boosted Smith International (SII) to equal weight from underweight. The stock gained 0.9% to close at $44.98.

But Barclays analysts also trimmed earnings estimates for Schlumberger (SLB) and Weatherford (WFT) because of lower price projections for natural gas. Schlumberger's price target, however, was raised, though Weatherford's was cut. Shares of Schlumberger finished 0.9% higher while Weatherford's stock lost 0.2%.

Elsewhere on the Nymex, May heating oil shed 2 cents, or 0.7%, to settle at $2.23 a gallon, and May gasoline also lost 2 cents, or 0.7%, to settle at $2.30 a gallon.

-- Written by Sung Moss and Melinda Peer in New York.

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