(Adds rigs in Permian in paragraph 6)
By Scott DiSavino
March 29 (Reuters) - U.S. energy firms this week reduced the number of oil rigs operating to their lowest in nearly a year, cutting the most rigs in a quarter in three years despite a 30 percent hike in crude prices so far in 2019.
Drillers cut eight oil rigs in the week to March 29, bringing the total count down to 816, the lowest since April 2018, General Electric Co's Baker Hughes energy services firm said in its closely followed report on Friday. <RIG-OL-USA-BHI>
That is the first time the rig count declined for six weeks in a row since May 2016 when it fell for eight consecutive weeks.
For the month, the rig count fell by 37 in March, the most in a month since April 2016 when it declined by 40 rigs.
For the quarter, the rig count fell by 69, the most in a quarter since the first quarter of 2016 when it fell by 164 rigs.
More than half the total U.S. oil rigs are in the Permian basin, the nation's biggest shale field, where active units fell by five this week to 454, also the lowest since April 2018.
The U.S. rig count, an early indicator of future output, is still a bit higher than a year ago when 797 rigs were active after energy companies boosted spending in 2018 to capture higher prices that year.
Drilling this year has slowed as independent exploration and production companies cut spending as they focus on earnings growth instead of increased output with crude prices projected to decline in 2019 versus 2018.
U.S. crude production slipped in January to 11.87 million barrels per day (bpd), from a monthly record high of 11.96 million bpd in December, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a monthly report on Friday.
U.S. crude futures rose to a four-month high over $60 a barrel on Friday, putting the contract on track for its best quarter since 2009, as U.S. sanctions against Iran and Venezuela as well as OPEC-led supply cuts overshadowed concerns over a slowing global economy.
Looking ahead, crude futures were trading around $60 a barrel for the balance of 2019 and about $59 in calendar 2020.
U.S. financial services firm Cowen & Co said this week that projections from the exploration and production (E&P) companies it tracks point to a percentage decline in the mid single digits in capital expenditures for drilling and completions in 2019 versus 2018.
Cowen said independent producers expect to spend about 11 percent less in 2019, while international oil companies plan to spend about 16 percent more.
In total, Cowen said all of the E&P companies it tracks that have reported will spend about $81.0 billion in 2019 versus $85.5 billion in 2018.
There were 1,006 oil and natural gas rigs active in the United States this week, according to Baker Hughes. Most rigs produce both oil and gas.
Analysts at Simmons & Co, energy specialists at U.S. investment bank Piper Jaffray, this week forecast the average combined oil and gas rig count will fall from 1,032 in 2018 to 1,016 in 2019 before rising to 1,092 in 2020.
That was an increase in Simmons' prediction last week of 999 rigs in 2019 and 1,087 in 2020.
(Reporting by Scott DiSavino Editing by Marguerita Choy)