March 16 (UPI) -- Crude oil prices were barely holding in positive territory early in the Friday session in anticipation of data on the exploration and production sector.
Crude oil prices one week ago shot up more than 3 percent after Baker Hughes reported a decline in North American exploration and production activity. Reported as rig counts, the metric provides a loose barometer for future production trends.
A decline could indicate a slow down at a time when the global market is caught between a U.S. oil sector on pace to lead the world and a policy from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to erase a market surplus with coordinated production cuts.
"Just like gold and copper, crude oil has also increasingly been struggling to break out of its established range," Ole Hanson, the head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank, said in an emailed market report. "The market has become stuck with rising U.S. production and softer term premiums being off-set by a strong demand outlook and the risk of supply disruptions with particular focus on Venezuela and Iran."
Baker Hughes publishes rig count data shortly after the trading session begins in New York.
This week saw reports from OPEC, the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency that showed production from non-OPEC producers, notably the United States, outpacing demand. That dims some of the optimism from the start of the year, which pushed the price of oil above $70 per barrel.
The firing of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, could signal an end to a nuclear deal that permits Iranian oil to flow through the global market. His expected replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, has taken a hard line on Iran in the past. Venezuela, meanwhile, continues to face U.S. pressure even as its oil sector is on a steady spiral downward.
Hanson said other producers, however, would be more than happy to take up the market share from Iran or Venezuela given the opportunity.
Energy stocks in general could be in for a rough ride given recent U.S. trade and income tax policies. Steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump on national security grounds mean oil and gas infrastructure projects could get more expensive without industry concessions. A ruling this week from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on income tax for some pipeline groups, meanwhile, could eat into cash flows.