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UPDATE 3-Norway offers 136 Arctic oil exploration blocks

(Adds Greenpeace statement)

OSLO, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Norway will offer oil companies blocks in nine frontier areas in its latest licensing round, it said on Thursday, opening the way for a major expansion of exploration in the Arctic and drawing fierce criticism from environmental campaigners. The Ministry of Petroleum and Energy and the Petroleum Directorate (NPD) offered 136 blocks, in line with a preliminary indication made in June. They include eight regions of the Arctic Barents Sea and one in the Norwegian Sea.

“New discoveries are necessary to ensure continued activity, ripple effects, employment and governmental revenues throughout the country,” Minister of Petroleum and Energy Tina Bru said in a statement.

The application deadline is Feb. 23 next year.

Environmental groups have said Norway’s hunt for Arctic oil and gas contradicted the country’s international commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (CO2).

Greenpeace, which awaits the Supreme Court’s ruling on the legality of an earlier Arctic licensing round, said the announcement of new blocks was “baffling”.

“In a time of climate crisis, they choose to facilitate even more oil exploration in the vulnerable Arctic,” Frode Pleym, head of Greenpeace Norway, said in a statement. “This is reckless and a mockery of future generations.”

Two lower courts have ruled in the government’s favour and the state has said decisions on future oil exploration are the responsibility of parliament, not the courts.

“Petroleum activities in Norway are subject to stringent health, safety and environment requirements, as well as requirements to safeguard the external environment,” Bru said.

Norway is western Europe’s top oil and gas producer with daily output of some 4 million barrels of oil equivalent.

The government estimates the Barents Sea holds about two-thirds of the remaining undiscovered oil and gas resources off Norway, although companies have yet to make major finds.

There are only two producing fields and one field under development in the Barents Sea.

Norway’s state-controlled Equinor, Sweden’s Lundin Energy and Norway’s Vaar Energi, a subsidiary of Italy’s Eni, say they are keen on exploration in the frigid northern waters.

But majors such as Shell and ConocoPhillips did not participate in the previous frontier areas licensing round. (Editing by Terje Solsvik, Elaine Hardcastle and Barbara Lewis)

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