The North Sea’s biggest oil and gas producer has underlined how much money firms are making in the area and revealed it is eyeing ‘material’ acquisition opportunities.

Harbour Energy said it is line to generate around $1 billion (£0.8bn) cash from its operations this year and declared it had continued to maximise the value of its UK oil and gas portfolio in the first nine months.

The cash generated by the UK business has been used to fund generous payouts to investors while leaving Harbour in a position to make bold moves as a wave of consolidation sweeps the sector.

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Chief executive Linda Cook said Harbour is evaluating a number of material mergers and acquisition opportunities as directors seek to build a global and diverse oil and gas company.

She noted: “Recent large transactions in our sector and our own discussions with potential counterparties indicate that market conditions for M&A are improving.”

The comments follow reports that Harbour is mulling a bid for the Wintershall DEA oil and gas business, which is thought to command a valuation of around $10bn.

A spokesperson for Harbour said it had no comment to make on the reports.

Harbour threatened to shift investment overseas following the introduction of the windfall tax in the UK last year. The company cut 350 jobs in the North Sea business. It snubbed the North Sea exploration round held by the Government this year in support of official efforts to “max out” the area’s reserves.

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Harbour has operations in Mexico and Indonesia, which Ms Cook said provide diversification opportunities.

However, more than 90% of its production comes from North Sea oil and gas fields.

In a trading and operations update issued yesterday Harbour made clear that the North Sea operation has been trading very profitably although market conditions are not as favourable as they were last year.

Oil and gas prices surged to multi-year highs last year amid Russia’s war on Ukraine. They have fallen in the last 12 months as concerns about the outlook for the global economy have mounted.

The company said it got an average of $77 per barrel for its UK oil production and 53 pence per therm for gas in the first nine months of this year. Production costs averaged $16 per barrel oil equivalent.

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Harbour has distributed $440 million to investors in the year to date, through dividends and share buy backs.

It approved $600m distributions last year.

Shareholders include US private equity firms which backed Harbour to buy big North Sea portfolios during the downturn that started in 2015.

It expects to make tax payments totalling $400m for the current year.

In March Harbour claimed the windfall tax had “all but wiped out” the profit it made last year.

This was after taking account of a $1.5bn non-cash deferred tax charge in respect of the windfall tax.

In August Harbour said it got £22.7m tax rebates in the first half following refunds of amounts paid in the UK in prior years.

Harbour noted yesterday that it has made progress in the emerging carbon capture and storage industry in the UK in recent months.

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The Viking project which Harbour is leading with BP in the Humber region passed important development milestones including the start of front-end engineering and design work.

Harbour is a partner in the Acorn project, which will involve storing carbon dioxide beneath the North Sea off Scotland. In July the Scottish carbon cluster scheme, which Acorn forms part of, won a place on the Government’s Track-2 programme to support CCS schemes.

Analysts at Stifel investment bank said yesterday’s update showed that Harbour was performing in line with guidance, and should be in a good position to continue to return cash to shareholders in 2024.

They added that Ms Cook’s positive remark about M&A market conditions suggested the gap between buyers and sellers is decreasing after the commodity price shocks of 2022.

In the USA ExxonMobil last month bought Pioneer Natural Resources for $59.5bn. Chevron bought Hess for $60bn.

Harbour Energy shares closed up 5.2p at 223.5p, leaving the company with a stock market capitalisation of around £1.7bn.

The North Sea Transition Authority yesterday welcomed the fact that seven North Sea development projects valued at almost £4bn have been approved by regulators and investors this year.

The bulk of the value is accounted for by the $3.8bn plan to develop the Rosebank field which was approved by Equinor and Ithaca Energy in September.