Oil rises above $97, natural gas falls back

NEW YORK — The price of oil rose above $97 a barrel Thursday for the first time in five weeks, boosted by gains in U.S. stock markets and more signs of a strengthening economy.

Benchmark oil for May delivery gained 65 cents to close at $97.23 a barrel in New York. Oil has gained nearly $5 per barrel in the past week, driven by encouraging economic indicators.

The government said the U.S. economy grew at 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter, up from a previous estimate of 0.1 percent growth. And analysts think the economy is growing at a rate of around 2.5 percent in the current January-March quarter, which ends this week.

Oil’s gains haven’t yet factored into pump prices. The U.S. average price for a gallon of gas is $3.645, down from $3.65 a day earlier. Gas is now on average about 27 cents cheaper than a year ago. In Houston, the average price was steady at $3.548 a gallon.

Meanwhile the price of natural gas retreated, a day after it closed above $4 for the first time since Sept. 14, 2011. Natural gas futures fell 4 cents to end at $4.02 per 1,000 cubic feet. Natural gas has risen 67 cents, or 20 percent, this year as colder weather and greater use of natural gas for power generation have helped whittle away at a large surplus of the fuel in the U.S.

Brent crude, used to price many kinds of oil imported by U.S. refineries, was down 33 cents to finish at $109.38 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

In other energy futures trading on the Nymex:
— Wholesale gasoline fell 1 cent to end at $3.11 a gallon.
— Heating oil was flat at $2.92 a gallon.