BP bosses have underlined the importance of the company’s North Sea business after it more than doubled annual profits.

The oil and gas giant grew underlying profits to $12.7 billion in 2018 from $6.2bn in the preceding year with rising production helping it capitalise on the increase in the crude price during the year.

BP included the Clair Ridge development West of Shetland in a list of major start-ups achieved during the year.

Read more: BP expects production at giant Shetland oil field to last for decades

The field came onstream in November with production set to last for decades.

BP approved other North Sea projects last year, which will help the firm develop its production base.

Chief executive Bob Dudley signalled yesterday that more approvals could be on the way. In a call with City analysts, he said more North Sea Final Investment Decisions are coming up.

While BP is excited about emerging areas such as Senegal, bosses made clear they see the North Sea as a key element in what they regard as a well-balanced global portfolio.

The head of BP’s upstream exploration and production business, Bernard Looney, said the North Sea was one of the company’s top four cash generating regions. It belongs to a group of established regions which “give and give and give”.

The performance of the North Sea business had improved significantly in recent years, measured in terms of the availability of production facilities.

The North Sea will feature in the programme of “key wells” it will drill in 2019.

Read more: BP highlights scale of latest North Sea finds

BP generated excitement in the industry in January when it said it had made finds West of Shetland and east of Aberdeen. The head of its North Sea business, Mark Thomas, said then the company expected to double production in the area to 200,000 barrels a day by 2020.

BP directors made no mention of Brexit yesterday.

The upbeat assessment of the North Sea contrasts with signs that the company appeared to be losing interest in the area as it grappled with the fallout from the crude price plunge between 2014 and 2016.This compounded the challenges posed by the disastrous spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The costs associated with the spill increased by $1.2bn before tax last year, to $67bn in total.

BP sold off a raft of assets in the North Sea to help it raise cash and shed around 600 jobs in the area.

Read more: One in three North Sea oil jobs 'lost' since 2015

Giant rival Shell made similar retrenchment moves during the downturn. The Anglo-Dutch firm’s chief executive Ben van Beurden said last week that the company was now focused on growth in the North Sea. Shell grew annual profits by 36% to a four-year high of $21.4 billion (£16.3bn), from $15.8bn.

Both BP and Shell say they will follow disciplined investment policies to support their efforts to increase returns to shareholders.

BP increased its fourth quarter dividend to 10.25 cents per share, from 10 cents las t time. Finance chief Brian Gilvary raised the prospect of a sizeable return of cash to shareholders via buy backs.

Mr Dudley said BP’s strategy was clearly working and would serve the company and its shareholders well through the energy transition.The company bought the operator of the UK’s largest vehicle charging network, Chargemaster, last year.

It received an average $71.31 per barrel for Brent crude last year, against $54.19 the preceding year.

Read more: Life is set to remain tough for oil services firms

Brent crude has fallen from a four year high of $85 per barrel in October to around $62.30 amid booming output in the US shale fields. BP expanded in that market through the $10.5bn acquisition of a portfolio from BHP last year. It can break even at $50/bbl.

Total production increased by 3% annually last year, to 3.7m barrels of oil equivalent a day.

BP shares closed up 5%, 26.9p, at 547p.