* Expects total E&P spending of $723 billion in 2014
* E&P spending to rise more than 7 pct in North America
* Forecasts 6 pct rise in E&P spending outside North America
Dec 9 (Reuters) - Oil and gas companies will spend about $723 billion on exploration and production (E&P) in 2014, an increase of 6.1 percent from 2013, Barclays Bank said in a report on Monday.
Major oil companies are slowing spending growth as they put more emphasis on increasing returns to investors amid a wave of shareholders activism in the industry, Barclays said.
Activist investors have pushed for shake-ups at a number of mid-sized energy companies this year including Chesapeake Energy Corp, Hess Corp and Transocean Ltd.
The Big Oil companies -- Exxon Mobil Corp, Chevron Corp, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Total SA and BP Plc -- though not targeted by activist investors are also under pressure to boost returns.
BP has raised its dividend, cut back capital spending plans, and ramped up its asset sales target to $10 billion over the next two years from between $4 billion and $6 billion. [ID: nL5N0IL30F]
Barclays forecast an increase of more than 7 percent in E&P spending in North America in 2014, compared with a 2 percent increase in 2013, based on a survey of more than 300 oil and gas companies conducted last month.
Spending is set to increase in North America after two years of tepid growth, when weak prices in the United States made drilling for natural gas uneconomical in many onshore fields.
E&P spending outside North America is likely to increase 6 percent to a record $524 billion in 2014, a smaller increase than the 10 percent rise this year, the bank said.
Limited growth by the oil majors and corruption probes directed at Chinese companies are weighing on growth expectations for international spending, but this will be partly offset by growth in the Middle East, Latin America and Russia, Barclays said.
The bank said while its initial expectation for 2014 suggested a modest slowdown in global spending growth, the mix of spending was moving away from large infrastructure projects to drilling, evaluation and completion activity.
The shift implied a revenue opportunity for diversified oil service companies such as Schlumberger Ltd, Halliburton Co and Baker Hughes Inc, the report said.
E&P companies are basing their spending budgets for the year on oil prices of $98 per barrel for Brent and $89 per barrel for West Texas Intermediate, and a benchmark U.S. natural gas price of $3.66 per British thermal unit, the bank said in its Global 2013 E&P Spending Update.