By Nerijus Adomaitis
SANDEFJORD, Norway (Reuters) - The Norwegian government has awarded 28 oil and gas companies a total of 69 offshore blocks to explore for petroleum in mature areas of its continental shelf, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate said on Tuesday.
Shell <RDSa.L>, ConocoPhillips <COP.N>, Total <TOTF.PA> and Equinor <EQNR.OL> won blocks, as did DNO <DNO.OL>, Aker BP <AKERBP.OL>, Lundin Petroleum <LUPE.ST> and Eni's <ENI.MI> Vaar Energi.
Private-equity backed firms, such as Chrysoar, which acquired ConocoPhillips assets in the British North Sea last year, and Neptune Energy received stakes in eight and 13 blocks respectively.
Russia's Lukoil <LKOH.MM>, which holds stakes in two licences, and wholly-owned Rosneft <ROSN.MM> subsidiary RN Nordic, a previous licenceholder, were not awarded any blocks. A ministry spokesman declined to comment on why.
The annual predefined areas (APA) licensing round covers blocks adjacent to acreage previously explored or developed, as opposed to licensing rounds in the country's frontier areas.
Thirty-three oil companies had submitted bids by a September deadline for a total of 90 offshore exploration blocks, including 48 in the Arctic Barents Sea.
The number of final awards depends on a range of factors, including Norway's requirement that each licence must have several owners.
Of this year's 69 licences, 33 were in the North Sea off southern Norway, 23 were in the Norwegian Sea off central and northern Norway and 13 were in the far-north Barents Sea.
Norway's oil and gas output is expected to rise sharply in the next several years as recent large discoveries come on stream, and authorities are keen to extend the lifespan of the oil and gas industry for decades to come.
"Hopefully, the exploration in the awarded acreage will result in new discoveries," Oil and Energy Minister Sylvi Listhaug told an industry conference in south-east Norway.
"This is important to ensure employment, value-creation and future government revenue for Norway's largest industry."
Separate from the APA awards, Norway also conducts so-called numbered licensing rounds, which include frontier parts of the Norwegian continental shelf, where exploration is more risky, but where large finds could be made.
The government aims to announce the next numbered licensing round before Norway's 2021 general election, but must first agree an updated plan on areas to exempt due to environmental concerns, particularly in the Arctic.
The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) estimates that two-thirds of Norway's undiscovered oil and gas resources are in the Barents Sea, but exploration there has been disappointing in the last few years.
(Writing by Nerijus Adomaitis and Terje Solsvik; Editing by Gwladys Fouche and Jan Harvey)