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OSLO (Reuters) - Norway offered a record number of blocks for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Barents Sea on Wednesday, brushing off concerns about the risks of drilling in the remote, icy environment.
The oil ministry proposed 102 blocks, comprising 93 in the Barents Sea and nine in the Norwegian Sea, despite calls from the Norway's Environment Agency to remove about 20 blocks near Bear Island, an important nesting site for Arctic birds.
The application deadline for Norway's 24th Arctic licensing round is Nov. 30 and the aim is to announce awards during the first half of 2018, the ministry said.
The 93 blocks proposed in the Barents Sea beat the previous record of 72 blocks offered in Norway's 22nd round
The country's Petroleum Directorate (NPD), which regulates the industry, said drilling in the Barents Sea was Norway's best chance of making new oil and gas discoveries.
"Therefore it's important to facilitate acreage for exploration in this area," the NPD said in a statement. "There's great interest, which also reflects the fact that 2017 is set to become a record year for exploration in the Barents Sea."
The latest offer drew sharp criticism from environmentalists, who said Western Europe's top oil and gas producer was ignoring the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
"This is an attack on the environment," Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace Norway, told Reuters. "It's a confirmation that the Norwegian government doesn't take their own climate commitments from Paris seriously."
The Paris Agreement sets a goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), ideally 1.5 (2.7F), above pre-industrial levels. Temperatures have already risen about 1 degree (1.8F).
Norway's petroleum sector contributes about 28 of the country's total emissions, which have to be limited according to the Paris Agreement.
Greenpeace is already taking the government to court over its previous licensing round, saying the expansion of exploration would raise emissions, violating the country's climate commitments.
The Norwegian Environment Agency had proposed expanding a non-drilling zone around Bear Island to 100 km from 65 km but about 20 blocks offered in the latest round fall within the new suggested exclusion zone.
The agency was not immediately available to comment.
editing by David Clarke