Norway awarded on Wednesday 10 new licenses for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea, including three in previously untouched waters near the Russian border.

The Oil Ministry said it is the first time new acreage has been opened for drilling in Norwegian waters in 20 years.

"The potential is huge," Oil Minister Tord Lien said. "If the companies are successful in their exploration, Northern Norway will enter a new era."

Thirteen companies were awarded 10 licenses consisting of 40 blocks in the Barents Sea, a portion of the Arctic Ocean just above Norway's northern coast.

Three of the licenses were in waters that became accessible to exploration after a border deal with Russia.

Environmentalists criticized the move, with Friends of the Earth Norway saying drilling for oil in the Arctic was incompatible with the goals of last year's climate pact in Paris.

"With this offer the government is going full throttle toward a warmer world," the group said, demanding that the licenses be withdrawn.

As part of the Paris Agreement in December, Norway pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg at the time said the deal should be a "turning point" in a global transition to "low-emission societies."

The biggest source of man-made emissions is the burning of coal, oil and gas for energy.

But with production declining at its North Sea fields, Norway has encouraged exploration of ice-free waters in the Barents Sea, to continue oil and gas exports that have made it one of the richest countries in the world.

Lien said all activities in the new licenses would "take place within a sound health, safety and environment framework."

The 13 companies awarded participating interests in the licensing round included Statoil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Lukoil.


Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.