By Henning Gloystein
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Oil prices were steady on Monday as a rising U.S. rig count pointed to further increases in American output, marking one of the few factors tamping back crude in an otherwise bullish environment.
Brent crude oil futures (LCOc1) were at $74.07 per barrel at 0354 GMT, virtually unchanged from their last close.
U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures (CLc1) were down 3 cents at $68.37 a barrel.
U.S. drillers added five oil rigs drilling for new production in the week ended April 20, bringing the total count to 820, highest since March 2015, according to General Electric's Baker Hughes energy services firm.
The rising rig numbers point to further increases in U.S. crude production , which is already up a quarter since mid-2016 to a record 10.54 million barrels per day (bpd).
Only Russia produces more at almost 11 million bpd.
(GRAPHIC: U.S. oil rig count, https://reut.rs/2JdlIeM)
Despite the dips in crude oil on Monday, the overall market remains well supported, especially by strong demand in Asia, and Brent prices are up by 20 percent from their 2018 lows in February.
Prices are also being supported by the supply cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that were introduced in 2017 to prop up the market.
"Added price pressure comes from U.S. sanctions against the key oil exporting nations of Venezuela, Russia and Iran," said J.P. Morgan Asset Management Global Market Strategist Kerry Craig. He was referring to action the U.S. government has taken on Russian companies and individuals, as well as on potential new measures against struggling Venezuela and especially OPEC-member Iran.
"Stay long oil," U.S. bank J.P. Morgan said in a separate note to clients.
The United States has until May 12 to decide whether it will leave the Iran nuclear deal and instead impose new sanctions against Tehran, including potentially on its oil exports, which would further tighten global supplies.
The U.S. trade action against Russia and, potentially, against Iran has resulted in a slump in Russia's ruble (RUB=) and Iran's rial <irr=>.</irr=>
This means costs for any imported goods become more expensive for its citizens or companies, but it has also pushed up the value of Russia's and Iran's oil sales as all of their production costs are in the local currencies, while foreign sales are virtually all made in the U.S. dollar.
The generally elevated oil prices have also sparked a spat between U.S. President Donald Trump and producer cartel OPEC.
Trump on Friday accused OPEC of "artificially" boosting oil prices, threatening on Twitter that this "will not be accepted", drawing rebukes from several of the world's top oil exporters within OPEC.
(GRAPHIC: Asia crude oil demand, https://reut.rs/2K2V89x)
(GRAPHIC: Brent crude oil in Russian ruble & Iranian rial, https://reut.rs/2Jh1JMw)