OSLO, Dec 13 (Reuters) – Norway launched its 2017 licensing round for so-called mature areas on Tuesday, allowing oil and gas firms access to up to 87 new offshore exploration blocks, Minister of Petroleum and Energy Tord Lien said in a statement.

Known as licensing of pre-defined areas, the mature round awards acreage close to existing developments and discoveries, allowing firms to tap in to new resources through infrastructure already in place or undergoing planning.

The 2017 round will include 53 blocks in the Arctic Barents Sea and 34 blocks in the Norwegian Sea, while none will be awarded further south, in the North Sea, according to the ministry.

Oil companies have sharply cut exploration and investment budgets in recent years following a 50 percent drop in the price of crude since 2014.

Still, the oil industry remains a crucial source of investment for the Norwegian economy with an estimated 143 billion Norwegian crowns ($16.96 billion) to be spent in 2017, a recent survey showed.

“Awarding new acreage for exploration is a key plank in the government’s petroleum policy and an important tool in resource management. The 2017 mature round will bring activity and value creation to our oceans,” Lien said.

If past procedures are followed, a final award of acreage, which depends among other things on the level of interest from oil companies, could take place in January 2018.

A total of 33 firms applied for acreage in the corresponding 2016 round, including Statoil, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Aker BP and Lundin Petroleum. Awards in that round are expected to take place in January 2017.

(Reporting by Terje Solsvik; Editing by Biju Dwarakanath)

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