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By Joachim Dagenborg and Nerijus Adomaitis
SANDEFJORD, Norway, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Norway has awarded a record 75 offshore oil exploration licences, to Statoil , Aker BP Shell, Total and ConocoPhillips among others, the energy ministry said on Tuesday.
The licenses comprised 45 in the North Sea, 22 in the Norwegian Sea and eight in the Barents Sea and were awarded in a so-called annual predefined areas (APA) licensing round, introduced by Norway in 2003 to encourage exploration and development of discoveries near existing infrastructure.
"The number of licenses is the highest ever awarded in a licensing round on the Norwegian continental shelf. Access to new, prospective exploration acreage is a central pillar in the government's petroleum policy," Energy Minister Terje Soeviknes said in a statement.
The 75 licences were awarded to 34 firms, of which 19 won the right to lead projects.
Environmentalists have criticized the expansion of exploration acreage via APA rounds in the Barents Sea, saying that such moves into a largely unexplored area with only two producing fields exceed the original purpose of the rounds.
In total, 39 firms had applied for the offered acreage, up from 33 companies that applied in the previous round a year ago, when the ministry awarded 56 exploration licenses.
Statoil was the biggest winner in the latest round with 31 licences, including 17 lead operators, while Aker BP came in second with 23 licences, of which 14 were lead operators.
Shell, Total, ConocoPhillips, Lundin Petroleum and ExxonMobil were among those awarded acreage. (Additional reporting by Ole Petter Skonnord; Editing by Terje Solsvik and Susan Fenton)