* Oil firms press to open environmentally sensitive area
* Lofoten areas could hold 1.3 bln barrels of oil equivalent
* The areas are also major spawning grounds for cod
OSLO, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Norway's environmentally sensitive
Lofoten archipelago will stay shut to oil exploration at least
until elections next year, although a study shows drilling is
unlikely to harm fisheries there, the oil minister said.
Oil companies, including Statoil, have been calling
on the government to open new areas for petroleum exploration as
mature fields in the North Sea become depleted.
"We should focus on the regions in the north that are
already open for exploration, and have the existing industries
learn to co-exist with the oil industry," Petroleum and Energy
Minister Ola Borten Moe told a news conference on Friday.
He reiterated the government position that it would leave
the decision on whether to explore Lofoten's waters to a future
government as he presented a study commissioned by the ministry.
The Lofoten area is more attractive for the oil industry
than the Barents Sea as it is close to the existing oil and gas
The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate said in 2010 Lofoten and
the surrounding areas could hold 1.3 billion barrels of oil
equivalent in petroleum reserves.
The Nordic country is the world's eighth-biggest oil
exporter and Europe's second-biggest piped gas supplier.
The general elections in September 2013 are likely to be a
tight race between the current leadership and the conservative
The drilling in the Arctic waters of the Norwegian Sea have
been the source of political controversy for years as
environmentalists have resisted drilling to protect what they
see as a highly vulnerable area.
Even the partners in the ruling coalition are not united on
The stretch of Norwegian Sea, roughly covering the coast
between the cities of Tromsoe and Bodoe, is home to vast fishing
The sea areas off Lofoten and Vesteraalen are the largest
spawning sites for North Atlantic cod, Norwegian environmental
group Bellona, which opposes the drilling in the area, said.
The minister said the study showed fisheries would not be
hurt by petroleum activities, but added that Norway should not
rush to open the area.
The head of the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association, an
industry lobby, said it was disappointed at the government's
hesitation to proceed.
"I am surprised over the minister's recommendations," said
Gro Braekken, the head of the association.
"His assessment is that oil and gas activity outside Lofoten
and Vesteraalen is safe, and hence it is wrong not to proceed to
an (official) impact study right away."
(Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis; Editing by Anthony