NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Natural gas storage levels rose last week but by less than analysts had anticipated, which turned natural gas futures positive Thursday and lifted the May contract by nearly 6%.

The Energy Information Administration said natural gas storage levels rose by 12 billion cubic feet in the week ended March 26, coming in lower than the expected range of 14 billion to 18 billion cubic feet, according to analysts polled by Platts.

Natural gas futures began the last trading session of the shortened week in the red, but quickly turned positive on news of the milder-than-expected increase. After slumping as low as $3.81 per million British thermal units, the May natural gas soared to $4.16 before settling up by 22 cents, or 5.6%, at $4.09 per million British thermal units.

As natural gas prices strengthened, so did shares of natural gas producers. Chesapeake Energy ( CHK), Devon Energy ( DVN), EOG Resources ( EOG), and Anadarko Petroleum ( APC) all ended more than 2% higher. Gastar Exploration ( GST) soared 4.9%, to $5.10.

Energy was one of the session's strongest performing sectors on a day that saw equities making broad gains on encouraging macroeconomic news.

Initial weekly jobless claims fell by 6,000 to 439,000, which was in line with the 440,000 claims that economists had been expecting and made investors more confident that Friday's March nonfarm payrolls report would show growth of at least 190,000 jobs.

Robust manufacturing data from across the globe was particularly bullish for potential energy demand. In the U.S., the Institute for Supply Management's manufacturing index for March came in at a better-than-expected level of 59.6, representing the fastest growth rate for the manufacturing sector since July 2004.

Chinese and eurozone manufacturing picked up last month, according to economic data out Thursday morning, and in Japan business confidence rose for the fourth consecutive quarter.

A weaker U.S. dollar also made dollar-priced commodities more attractive to foreign buyers, and crude oil surged to an 18-month high. The May crude contract hit a high of $85.22 a barrel before settling $1.11 higher, or up by 1.3%, at $84.87 a barrel.

The dollar was trading lower against a basket of currencies, with the dollar index down by 0.4%.

Major energy stocks surged with the NYSE Arca Oil index up 1.8%, while the Philadelphia Oil Services index gained 2.6%.

Exxon Mobil ( XOM) gained 0.9%, to $67.61 and Chevron ( CVX) rose 1.1% higher, to $76.69.

ConocoPhillips ( COP), Suncor Energy ( SU), and Royal Dutch Shell ( RDS.A) finished up by 1.7%, 4.6% and 1.9%, respectively.

Elsewhere on the Nymex, the May heating oil contract added 5 cents, or 2.4%, to settle at $2.22 a gallon and the May gasoline contract finished a penny higher, or up by 0.6%, to settle at $2.32 a gallon.

-- Written by Melinda Peer in New York.

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