Norway will not seek oil in Lofoten before 2013 polls -minister

* 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

transportation system.

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.

POLITICAL SENSITIVITIES

The general elections in September 2013 are likely to be a

tight race between the current leadership and the conservative

opposition.

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 issue.

The stretch of Norwegian Sea, roughly covering the coast

between the cities of Tromsoe and Bodoe, is home to vast fishing

resources.

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

Barker)

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