OSLO, Sept 9 (Reuters) - A total of 43 oil firms have asked for drilling permits in Norway's annual licensing round in so-called mature areas of its continental shelf, down from 47 last year, the country's Oil and Energy Ministry said on Wednesday.
Statoil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell were among the applicants, it added.
Norway, western Europe's biggest energy producer, regularly offers blocks that were either handed back or not taken in previous rounds as technological advances and nearby discoveries improve exploration prospects over time.
Plunging crude prices have led to a sharp decline in investments by oil firms on Norway's continental shelf this year, leading to higher unemployment and concerns that the country's most important industry will continue to contract.
"Giving extensive and predictable access to attractive exploration acreage is among the most important things the government can do to sustain a high, long-term activity level in the industry," Energy Minister Tord Lien said in a statement.
Unlike many other oil and gas producers, Norway hands out licences for free and subsidizes both exploration and development costs before imposing a 78 percent tax on production.
Among the new blocks included in the 2015 mature round are acreage near Statoil's Aasta Hansteen gas field, Lundin Petroleum's Alta and Gohta finds and blocks near the smaller Pil and Bue discoveries, the ministry has said.
Mature areas licensing rounds have led to a plethora of discoveries in recent years and even part of the giant Johan Sverdrup field, with up to 3 billion barrels of oil equivalents was found through such an award.
The government is expected to decide on the allocation of resources in early 2016.
Norway is also conducting a separate licensing round for frontier areas with a focus on Arctic areas and expects applications until Dec. 2.
(Reporting by Terje Solsvik, editing by Alister Doyle and Susan Thomas)
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