THE NORWEGIAN government has redefined the Arctic border as part of a “milestone” move to open up drilling for oil and gas in unprecedented areas.

Retreating sea ice has allowed the country’s Ministry of Petroleum and Energy to offer 57 blocks, or parts of blocks, in previously disputed waters near Russia, parts of the Barents Sea, and three blocks in the Norwegian Sea.

The government said it aimed to award the new production licences in the first half of 2016.

“For the first time since 1994, we will explore an entirely new area on the Norwegian Shelf,” Norway’s minister of petroleum and energy Tord Lien said.

“This will generate unique possibilities for value creation, growth and employment opportunities, particularly for Northern Norway.”

The 23rd licensing round includes 34 blocks in the untapped south-eastern Barents Sea, 20 blocks in other parts of the sea, and three blocks in the Norwegian Sea.

Creating long-term value from new acreage in the Norwegian shelf was said to be important for promoting activity in the supplier sector, particularly in light of the “current challenging situation in the industry”.

The government said the activity would include “time restrictions for exploration to safeguard the consideration for important environmental assets along the actual/observed ice edge”.

“The environmental assets are being safeguarded with the framework that is in place for new production licences in the Barents Sea,” Mr Lien said.

Norway’s major political parties have agreed to not start any petroleum activity during the current parliamentary term, with an updated calculation of the actual boundaries of the ice edge to be provided this northern spring.

“The 23rd licensing round includes requirements relating to the distance to the actual/observed ice edge, so the environmental assets along the ice edge are safeguarded,” a government statement said.

“The companies must in any case relate to the actual conditions in an area so they can carry out responsible petroleum activities.”

The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate will prepare a technical assessment of sea and ice data to increase the knowledge base and help ensure petroleum activities are carried out responsibly.