BP has tripled first quarter profits after feeling the benefit of increased oil prices and the start of production from a big North Sea field.

The oil and gas giant made $2.6 billion (£1.9bn) profit net of one-offs in the three months to March 31 on the measure followed by analysts compared with $0.8bn in the same period last year.

Chief executive Bernard Looney said the result reflected a strong business performance and the recovery in the commodity price environment, which has accompanied the rollout of coronavirus vaccines.

READ MORE: Oil prices surge after coronavirus vaccine success

BP noted the Brent crude price averaged $61.12 per barrel in the first quarter, compared with $50.10/bbl in the same period of last year.

The price fell below $20/bbl in April last year as demand plunged in response to the imposition of coronavirus lockdowns around the world.

BP said yesterday: “It is difficult to predict when current supply and demand imbalances will be resolved and what the ultimate impact of Covid-19 will be.”

However, directors appear confident that the global economy is set on the road to recovery.

“Oil demand is expected to recover in 2021 due to strong growth in US and China and as the distribution of vaccinations gains momentum and lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted,” said the company, adding: “We expect global gas demand to recover to above 2019 levels.”

BP has enjoyed a first full quarter of output from the bumper Vorlich field in the North Sea. It brought the field into production in November, with Israeli-owned Ithaca Energy.

READ MORE: Oil giant says North Sea remains core area

BP said in February that the start up of Vorlich was a highlight of the fourth quarter. The group said then that the North Sea was one of eight core oil and gas basins it would focus on around the world.

The company has said it can use the profits made in the oil and gas business to fund investment in areas such as renewables, while making payouts to investors.

Mr Looney plans to reinvent BP as a broad-based energy firm that can play a role in the fight against climate change. This will involve the group investing heavily in areas ranging from offshore wind and solar energy to electric vehicle charging networks.

The Herald: BP chief executive Bernard Looney Picture: BPBP chief executive Bernard Looney Picture: BP

Mr Looney said yesterday that BP will commence share buybacks in the second quarter while maintaining a resilient dividend policy. The company expects to buy back around $500m of shares in the second quarter.

It will pay a 5.25 cents per share dividend for the first quarter in line with the preceding three months.

In August the company halved its dividend for the second quarter, from 10.5 cents per share, in a move which formed part of directors’ plan to reset BP for the future in the face of difficult conditions.

READ MORE: BP to shed 10,000 jobs amid fallout from coronavirus crisis

In June, BP launched a programme that was expected to result in a 10,000 (11%) reduction in global workforce numbers without saying how it would impact on the North Sea.

The company employs around 1,000 in its North Sea business, compared to 1,150 in June.

BP has focused investment on assets that it reckons have the best long-term potential. These include big fields West of Shetland such as Clair Ridge.

In January last year it struck a deal to sell stakes in the Andrew and Shearwater assets to Premier Oil for $625m. The deal fell apart after Premier was swallowed up by private equity-backed Chrysaor.

It is understood that efforts to find other buyers for the assets concerned are progressing. Last month it was reported that a range of independents were in the running to buy them.

READ MORE: Plans to develop billion barrel oil field off Shetland set to be revived

The likes of Serica Energy and EnQuest have made clear they are in the market for North Sea acquisitions. On Monday EnQuest announced it had struck a deal to buy the undeveloped Bentley heavy oil field East of Shetland from Whalsay Energy for up to $42m.

Glasgow-born Emeka Emembolu became head of BP’s North Sea business in July.

BP cut net debt to $33bn in the first quarter of this year, helped by disposals, from $38.9bn at December 31. It had aimed to cut net debt to $35bn.

Shares in BP closed down 1.25p, at 295.3p.