Norway's energy ministry launches an Arctic-focused oil and gas licensing round.
OSLO/SANDEFJORD, Norway, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Norway invited firms on Tuesday to drill for oil and gas further inside the Arctic Circle, putting the government at loggerheads with opposition parties as it seeks to open up new fields at a time of declining production.
Launching a new licensing round, Oslo said it would offer 57 blocks in the previously unexplored eastern part of the Barents Sea, which had been free of ice since 2004.
"When the ice has moved, and satellites show it has moved further north, then we have to take care of nature in this area. What we are doing will ensure that," Prime Minister Erna Solberg told NRK public radio on Tuesday.
The government said it planned to award the blocks in the new zone, where Norway settled a 40-year border dispute with Russia in 2010, in the first half of 2016.
The sector lies 60-70 kilometres (40-45 miles) to the north of areas currently accessible to the oil industry. It is being opened up on the basis of a new 1984-2013 benchmark for the spread of sea ice, which supersedes measurements collated between 1967 and 1989.
The government also awarded 54 blocks in mature areas to 43 companies, with Statoil gaining the right to operate eight, Lundin Petroleum six and Total five.
Oil Minister Tord Lien said that, despite industry cutbacks expected this year, the government would carry on awarding large numbers of new licences.
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