NEW YORK - The number of rigs drilling for natural gas in the United States rose two this week to 701, the seventh straight weekly gain after sinking in mid-July to the lowest level in more than seven years, according to a report on Friday by Baker Hughes in Houston.

U.S. natural gas drilling rigs are still down sharply since peaking above 1,600 September last year, and now stand at 885 rigs below the same week last year.

During the week ended July 17, 2009, the natural gas rig count dipped to 665, its lowest level since May 3, 2002, when there were 640 gas rigs operating.

Tighter access to credit and a 75 percent slide in natural gas prices to below $3 per mmBtu over the last year or so have forced many producers to scale back gas drilling operations.

But while the steep decline in drilling this year has started to slow production and tighten supplies, most traders agreed it has not been enough yet to offset recession-related cuts in industrial demand and slight gains in imports of LNG. (Reporting by Edward McAllister; Editing by Marguerita Choy)