OIL and gas firms have shown faith in the exploration potential of the North Sea by giving one of the strongest responses on record to a North Sea licensing round.

The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change said it had received 173 applications for acreage under the 28th offshore licensing round, which cover around 370 blocks or part blocks.

In 2012 the department got 224 applications covering 418 blocks.

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The number of applications in the latest round was the fifth highest since the first auction in 1964.

The number of blocks applied for was the third highest on record.

Energy Minister Michael Fallon said: "There remains an extraordinary level of interest, which is excellent news for industry and for the UK economy."

Exploration drilling fell in the North Sea in 2013, when cost increases hit activity. However, the number of new fields brought onstream reached a five-year high of 13, possibly reflecting tax changes and advances in technology.

Xcite Energy said yesterday it had entered a Collaboration Agreement with Statoil and Shell under which the firms will share information about the undeveloped Bentley and Bressay heavy oil fields off Shetland.

Xcite hopes to develop the Bentley field.

In November, Statoil delayed work on Bressay to try to reduce costs. Shell has a stake in Bressay.