NORTH Sea-focused Verus Petroleum has agreed to buy a $400 million (£300m) portfolio from Japanese conglomerate Itochu as the competition for assets in the area intensifies.

The portfolio includes stakes in the giant Western Isles oil development off north east Scotland and the Sullom Voe terminal on Shetland.

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The deal is the latest in a series involving independents backed by private equity firms that are making big bets on the North Sea.

Verus is majority-owned by Norwegian investment firm HiTec Vision.

Neptune Energy and Chrysaor have invested billions buying North Sea portfolios in recent months with support from international financiers.

These appear to have decided the time is right to invest in what is classed as a mature basin.

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The crude price plunge between 2014 and 2016 created opportunities to buy assets at knock-down prices. Lots of North Sea assets were put up for sale during the resulting downturn leaving some owners struggling to find buyers.

The subsequent oil price rally combined with cost reductions in the North Sea has provided a big boost to the appeal of assets in the area, amid excitement about its exploration potential.

Verus Petroleum chief executive Alan Curran noted the deal with Itochu was aligned with the firm’s strategy to expand through the acquisition of high quality production assets.

“We are delighted to acquire high value barrels with the Western Isles production in particular having very low lifting costs and being a long-life asset with strong cash generation,” he said.

Jersey Oil & Gas, which made a bumper find in the Moray Firth in October, yesterday said competition for North Sea acquisitions has intensified this year following the rise in the oil price to above $75 per barrel.

“The landscape for potential acquisitions in the North Sea has changed,” noted chief executive Andrew Benitz in Jersey’s interim results.

“The Company has bid seriously on the sales of several producing assets during the reporting period and on each occasion we have been outbid.”

Jersey owns the rump of the assets amassed by Trap Oil, which plunged deep into the red in 2014.

Jersey achieved renown last year when it made the Verbier discovery on acreage the firm persuaded Norwegian giant Statoil to buy in to.

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Verbier is estimated to contain up to 130 million barrels oil equivalent. The partners will drill an appraisal well on it this year.

While exploration levels have fallen to record lows in the North Sea in response to the crude price plunge, the success achieved by independents appears to be stoking excitement about its potential.

Analysts noted the pioneering role played by Surrey-based Hurricane Energy, which has enjoyed huge success West of Shetland. It has focused on the fractured basement rock beneath the sandstone on which most drillers have concentrated.

Hurricane noted yesterday it is on track to bring the giant Lancaster find into production next year. The firm recently won backing from heavyweight Spirit Energy for a big programme of work on the Warwick find.

Noting recent progress at Hurricane, Ashley Kelty and Jack Allardyce, oil and gas research analysts at Cantor Fitzgerald Europe, said: “We believe that investors and industry participants are (finally) waking up to the potential of the basement play on the UKCS.”

Meanwhile North Sea focused independent RockRose achieved a $27m underlying profit in the six months to 30 June, helped by the crude price rise, after losing $2.4m last time.

Founded in 2015, the company has acquired a number of producing assets.

The Itochu portfolio includes a 23.1% interest in Western Isles, a 25.8% stake in the Hudson field, a 2.0% stake in the Brent Pipeline System, and a 1.2% interest in the Sullom Voe terminal.