Oil prices rallied on Monday, reversing earlier losses, as the market digested news of a modest rise in U.S. drilling activity, though uncertainty lingered over the outcome of a meeting of the world's major exporters next month to discuss freezing output.
U.S. energy firms last week added one oil rig after 12 weeks of cuts, according to data from industry firm Baker Hughes. Oil rigs have fallen by two-thirds over the past year to their lowest since 2009, and this surprise addition suggested the drop-off in crude drilling may be stabilizing after the oil price's 50% rally since February.
"We would not over-interpret this (rise in rigs), however, given that the oil rig count is still at its lowest level since 2009. What is more, there have been only two weekly increases in the oil rig count since August – neither of which proved lasting," Commerzbank analysts said in a note.
Brent crude futures were 52 cents higher at $41.72 a barrel by 1355 GMT, having risen from a session low at $40.48, while U.S. futures rose 48 cents to $39.92.
The Commerzbank analysts said U.S. oil production still appeared fairly robust, due in part to special factors such as temporarily higher productivity and producers' price hedging strategies. "We therefore continue to expect U.S. oil production to decline sharply in the coming weeks and months."
The Federal Reserve's more cautious note last week on the outlook for U.S. interest rates sapped the dollar of some strength. That theoretically encourages demand for dollar-priced assets such as commodities, as these become less costly for overseas investors.
Oil hit a 2016 high above $40 a barrel last week, encouraged by optimism that OPEC and its major non-OPEC counterparts could strike a deal next month to leave supply unchanged at January's levels.
That could help mitigate one of the largest global build-ups of unwanted crude in modern times, but analysts are wary of betting too heavily on this.
"A March 20 meeting in Moscow has changed into an April 17 meeting in Doha, which is only six weeks ahead of the next full OPEC meeting on June 2. Dollar strength that might reverse and a production freeze that might turn out to be an empty vessel are not the strongest foundations on which to be long oil at $40 a barrel," PVM Oil Associates' David Hufton said.
Brent futures are set for their largest one-month gain since April last year, up by more than 13% so far in March, after having fallen in all but six out of the last 18 months.