LONDON (Reuters) - Oil majors BP and ConocoPhillips will cut over 500 jobs in the North Sea following similar moves by rivals to reduce costs in one of the world's most expensive exploration areas as oil prices tumble.
Although the cuts are relatively small for companies with dozens of thousands of employees, they come at a politically sensitive time in Britain as the Scottish independence debate continues and a May parliamentary election looms.
BP said the cuts of 200 onshore staff and 100 contractors were part of a previously announced $1 billion reorganization aimed at simplifying the company's structure after it sold billions of dollars of assets.
The head of BP North Sea, Trevor Garlick, said the cuts were due to tougher market conditions, to ensure the competitiveness of operations and to align the company with steps taken by the wider industry. BP employs 4,000 people in the North Sea and another 11,000 across the UK.
Fellow North Sea oil producer ConocoPhillips is cutting 230 jobs in Britain, with its UK workforce expected to drop to just over 1,400 by March, a spokeswoman said.
Rivals Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron announced job cuts in the North Sea last year.
Oil prices have collapsed over the last six months, dropping almost 60 percent as a global glut has overwhelmed demand at a time of lackluster world economic growth.
North Sea Brent crude oil was trading around $49.30 a barrel on Thursday, down from more than $115 last June.
Britain's North Sea oil and gas sector employs over 400,000 people and has brought more than $200 billion in tax revenue to the government, making it a vital part of Britain's economy.
News of job cuts in the sector have stirred concern among the country's politicians gearing up for elections in May.
"The government is determined to do everything we can to work with industry to make sure we can maintain those jobs," British Energy Secretary Edward Davey, due to visit industry representatives in Aberdeen on Thursday, told BBC radio.
Fergus Ewing, Scottish minister for business, energy and tourism, said the Scottish government had set up a task force to see that could be done.
"In order to prevent the premature decommissioning of fields there needs to be a clear signal sent to the operators, many of whom are headquartered in places like Houston and Calgary, that the UK government gets it," Ewing, a member of the Scottish National Party, told BBC radio.
"The UK needs to send a signal that it values the industry as an enormous contributor to Scotland and the UK, not as a giant cash machine for the exchequer when the times are good."
The number of oil wells drilled in the British part of the North Sea fell to the lowest level in 15 years last year, data showed on Thursday.
However, in a development showing that some major exploration is still ongoing, France's Total and Britain's BG have started producing gas at the West Franklin field in the North Sea.
Additional reporting by Karolin Schaps and William James,; Editing by Christopher Johnson, Dale Hudson and David Evans