An oil well is seen near Denver, Colorado. File photo: REUTERS
An oil well is seen near Denver, Colorado. File photo: REUTERS

London — Oil prices steadied on Monday as an increase in US drilling, likely to lead to higher shale production, balanced evidence of tightening supply.

Benchmark Brent was up 40 US cents at $77.51 a barrel by 7.50am GMT. US crude was down 10c at $73.70.

US energy companies last week increased the number of rigs drilling for oil by five to 863, up 100 year-on-year, General Electric’s Baker Hughes energy services firm said in its closely followed report late on Friday.

The US rig count, an early indicator of future output, is much higher than a year ago as energy companies have ramped up production in response to higher prices.

Extra output is needed because oil demand has been rising fast in 2018 and supply from several parts of the world, including Venezuela and Libya, has been falling.

This has tightened the market, especially in the US.

Crude oil inventories at Cushing, Oklahoma, the delivery point for US crude futures, have fallen to their lowest in three-and-a-half years, data showed last week.

"Cushing is clearly screaming out for crude," said Virendra Chauhan, oil analyst at Energy Aspects in Singapore.

Oil cartel Opec and other countries agreed in June to a modest increase in output to dampen oil prices, which recently hit three-and-a-half year highs.

A rise in supply will reverse some of the output cuts that Opec and other major producers put in place in early 2017 to end several years of glut.

The tightness at Cushing and the potential increase in Gulf exports "have implications for how quickly the prompt overhang in the market can clear, and thus provide some direction for prices", Chauhan said.

Concerns that oil prices will be weighed down by a trade conflict between the US and China have faded to some extent, analysts said.

The US and China exchanged the first salvos in what could become a protracted trade war on Friday, slapping tariffs on $34bn worth of each others’ goods and giving no sign of willingness to start talks aimed at a reaching a truce.