March 16 (Reuters) - U.S. energy companies added oil rigs for the seventh time in the last eight weeks on expectations crude prices in 2018 will top 2017, prompting more drillers to boost spending plans for this year.
Drillers added four oil rigs in the week to March 16, bringing the total count to 800, General Electric (NYSE:GE) Co's GE.N Baker Hughes energy services firm said in its closely followed report on Friday. RIG-OL-USA-BHI
The U.S. rig count, an early indicator of future output, is much higher than a year ago when 631 rigs were active as energy companies have continued to boost spending since mid-2016 when crude prices began recovering from a two-year crash.
U.S. crude futures CLc1 traded around $62 a barrel this week, about 7 percent below levels hit in January when prices rose to $66.66, their highest since December 2014. That compares with averages of $50.85 in 2017 and $43.47 in 2016.
Looking ahead, futures were trading around $61 for the balance of 2018 CLBALst and $57 for calendar 2019 CLYstc1 .
In anticipation of higher prices in 2018 than 2017, U.S. financial services firm Cowen & Co said 58 of the roughly 65 exploration and production (E&P) companies they track have already provided capital expenditure guidance indicating an 11 percent increase in planned spending over 2017.
Cowen said those E&Ps that have reported spending plans for 2018 expected to spend a total of $80.5 billion in 2018, up from an estimated $72.4 billion in 2017.
Analysts at Simmons & Co, energy specialists at U.S. investment bank Piper Jaffray, this week forecast the total oil and natural gas rig count would average 1,015 in 2018 and 1,128 in 2019, the same as its projection two weeks ago.
So far this year, the total number of oil and natural gas rigs active in the United States has averaged 961. That compares with an average of 876 rigs operating in 2017, 509 in 2016 and 978 in 2015. Most rigs produce both oil and gas.
For the year, EIA projected in March that total U.S. production will rise to a record high 10.7 million bpd in 2018 and 11.3 million bpd in 2019, up from 9.3 million bpd in 2017. EIA/M
The current all-time U.S. annual output peak was in 1970 at 9.6 million bpd, according to federal energy data.
<^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Graphic on U.S. rig counts
http://graphics.thomsonreuters.com/15/rigcount/index.html U.S./Canada natural gas rig count versus Henry Hub futures price
http://tmsnrt.rs/2eT9k44 Shale oil breakevens
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