Energy futures advanced Thursday at the New York Mercantile Exchange, boosted by crude oil prices that jumped 3.4%.

The May contract for light sweet crude oil climbed $2.08 to $61.69 a barrel. Reformulated gasoline rose 3 cents to $1.96 a gallon, and heating oil rose 6 cents to $1.72 a gallon.

Natural gas was up 16 cents at $7.32 per million British thermal units.

Crude's sharp gains followed bullish oil-product inventory numbers released Wednesday by the Energy Information Administration. Although the greater crude oil inventory figure was slightly bearish, components of the EIA report suggested that crude supplies are declining in markets east of the Rocky Mountains.

"The U.S. data are continuing to show a sharp tightening, a dynamic which suggests scope for upside price potential as we move into the second quarter," according to an analyst report from Barclays Capital Research.

Crude dropped from $63.28 a barrel on March 7 to near $59 on March 20.

Meanwhile, the EIA released natural gas inventory figures for the week ended March 16 that were more bearish than analysts were expecting. Inventories grew by 17 billion cubic feet during the week, whereas analysts at Barclays were expecting a 6 bcf draw.

Regardless, the bearish figures weren't strong enough to overpower the effect that the increase in crude prices had on the overall energy market, and natural gas futures climbed in the trading session.

Although natural gas inventories are above the five-year average range, they don't appear to be offsetting the decline in imports from Canada that are due to declining production there. "That will mean futures market tightness," says John Herrlin, energy analyst at Merrill Lynch.

As for stocks, energy shares were broadly higher. The

iPath Goldman Sachs Crude Oil

(OIL) - Get Report

ETF advanced 2.9% to close at $36.62.

ConocoPhillips

(COP) - Get Report

rose 2.3% to close at $68.68.

Chevron

(CVX) - Get Report

rose 2.2% to $72.93, and

Exxon Mobil

(XOM) - Get Report

gained 1.5% to $74.36.

MDU Resources

(MDU) - Get Report

was upgraded by KeyBanc Capital Markets to buy from hold, and its stock was up 2.1% at $27.94.

Refinery firm

Alon USA Energy

(ALJ)

was upgraded by Credit Suisse to outperform from neutral, and its target stock price was bumped to $41 a share from $32 a share. Alon USA traded 5.8% higher at $35.93.

Gulmark Offshore

( GMRK) was downgraded by Capital One Southcoast to hold from buy, and it fell 0.9%; Citigroup downgraded

Allegheny Energy

( AYE) to hold from buy, sending its shares 1.4% lower.