* Natural gas-directed rig count at 658, up 6 * Horizontal rig count gains for second time in 3 weeks * Oil rigs again hit 25-year high By Joe Silha NEW YORK, March 30 U.S. energy producers this week boosted the number of rigs drilling for natural gas for the first time in 12 weeks despite historically low prices for the fuel that have squeezed profit margins and forced some to curb dry gas drilling operations. The gas-directed rig count climbed by six to 658, after hitting a 10-year low of 652 last week, data from oil services firm Baker Hughes released on F riday showed. However, the gain in rigs was too small to impact prices, gas traders said. Natural gas produced during development of more-lucrative liquids-based plays is likely bolstering gas output despite the rig count drop over the last three months. "Today's rise could be a dead-cat bounce, but as long as oil is at $100 a barrel, drilling for liquids is going to keep gas drilling high," said Phil Flynn, analyst at PFGBest in Chicago. One of the mildest winters on record slowed demand for gas and has kept prices on the defensive this year, with front-month futures hitting another 10-year low of $2.11 on F riday, a price that should make some drilling operations uneconomic. While low prices have been good news for homeowners and businesses, they have hurt dry gas producers that have been forced to sell at below cost. Producers such as Chesapeake, the country's second-largest gas company, and Encana, Canada's largest producer, have said they will shut in some gas output or trim spending in pure dry gas plays due to the price slide. The announced reductions so far total more than 1 billion cubic feet per day, or nearly 2 percent of estimated annual production, but traders noted other drillers have remained quiet and announced cuts so far have not been enough to tighten a market saddled with record supplies. Separately, the oil-focused rig count hit another 25-year high this week after five more rigs came online, bringing the total count to 1,318. There were 50 percent more rigs drilling for oil in the United States last week than a year earlier. U.S. energy companies have shifted focus from dry shale gas plays such as Haynesville in Louisiana to shale oil patches in North Dakota, south Texas, Colorado and Ohio. GAS COUNT STILL DOWN SHARPLY THIS YEAR The gas-directed rig count is down nearly 30 percent since peaking last year at 936 in October. The decline has stirred talk that low gas prices, off more than 40 percent in the last five months, might finally force producers to slow output. But the recent slide in gas-directed drilling has yet to be reflected in pipeline flows, which are still estimated to be at or near record highs. U.S. Energy Information Administration production data on Thursday offered little hope for the bulls, with January gross gas output climbing to a record of 72.85 billion cubic feet per day, eclipsing the previous peak of 72.68 bcfd from November. The slight production drop the agency reported for December, the first measurable decline since well freeze-offs curbed output in January and February 2011, had raised expectations that producers might finally be curtailing output. Front-month natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange, which were up 0.1 cent at $2.15 per mmBtu just before the report was released at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT), showed little reaction to the Baker Hughes data. Some analysts say the gas-directed rig count may have to drop below 600 to reduce flowing supplies significantly, noting the producer shift to higher-value oil and gas liquids plays still produces plenty of associated gas that partly offsets any reductions in pure dry gas output. Gas prices have been weighed down for the past year by record high gas production, primarily from shale, and should be well below the cost of most dry gas output. Horizontal rigs, the type most often used to extract oil or gas from shale, rose for the second time in three weeks, climbing by six to 1,180, just shy of the all-time high of 1,185 hit in late January. The share of horizontal rigs drilling for dry gas has fallen sharply over the last two years due to much higher prices for oil and natural gas liquids (NGLs). While low gas prices should attract more demand from utilities and industry, most analysts agree it will be difficult to balance the gas market without more serious production cuts. Analysts say it can take months for a slowdown in drilling to translate into lower production.