OSLO- Norway has awarded four exploration licences to seven oil companies, including three for the Arctic Barents Sea, but fewer oil companies applied for the permits than in previous licensing rounds.
The awards were part of Norway's so-called numbered licensing rounds that cover previously unexplored frontier areas of the country's continental shelf, expanding the geographical reach of its oil and gas industry.
"This is important for employment and value creation in the Norwegian oil and gas industry," Minister of Petroleum and Energy Tina Bru said in a statement.
The fourth new exploration permit in the 25th licensing round is located further south, in the Norwegian Sea.
The latest round attracted interest from seven companies, fewer than in the previous two rounds, with 11 companies seeking acreage in the 24th round in 2018 and 26 companies in the 23rd round in 2016.
Norway offered nine areas for drilling in the 25th round, of which five went uncollected, all of them in the Barents Sea, where oil firms have drilled many dry wells in the past few years and where only a few fields have so far been developed.
Greenpeace Norway chief Frode Pleym said: "This shows that a majority of firms have given up the hope of oil from the Barents Sea."
Norway's plans to continue with exploration in the Arctic and elsewhere have been criticised by environmentalists who say they contradict the Nordic country's international pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"It is absolutely unacceptable for the Norwegian government to continue drilling for more fossil fuels in the middle of a climate emergency," Greenpeace's Pleym said.
Earlier this month, climate activists asked the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to rule against Norway's plans for more oil drilling in the Arctic, arguing the country's exploration deprives young people of their future.
The ECHR has not said whether it will take up the environmentalists' case or not.
Equinor received stakes in two of the permits, and will be the operator for both. Eni's Vaar Energi and Ineos E&P will each operate one licence.
"A steady access to acreage contributes positively to the development of the Norwegian Continental Shelf," Equinor senior vice-president Jez Averty said in a statement.
Shell, Idemitsu, Lundin Energy and OMV also received stakes in the same blocks, but will not be operators.
The 25th round was announced after the Norwegian parliament agreed on an updated plan for the Barents Sea development, redrawing limits for the oil industry's northernmost expanse.
Norway has conducted numbered licensing rounds since the mid-1960s.
In addition to its numbered rounds, Norway also makes annual awards in what it calls mature areas, adding acreage around existing oil and gas fields or search areas.
Exploration in mature areas generally involves less economic risk than in frontier regions but is also expected to yield smaller discoveries.
Norway is western Europe's largest oil and gas producer with a daily output of around 4 million barrels of oil equivalent.
(Editing by Jane Merriman) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +47 9027 6699; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com))