OSLO (Reuters) - Norway's right-wing government reaffirmed on Thursday a ban on oil and gas exploration off picturesque Arctic islands, rejecting suggestions it might open the area to drilling in the run-up to elections in 2017.
The Oil and Energy Ministry said it had sent letters to oil companies dismissing what it called media speculation that the areas off the Lofoten and Vesteraalen islands would be opened to oil and gas exploration in a new licensing round.
"That's never been the case," it said in a statement.
It reaffirmed a statement, issued when it announced the new round last week, that it was asking companies to nominate blocks for exploration in areas that are already "open" to oil and gas drilling on the Norwegian shelf.
The Lofoten region, where jagged mountains rise from the sea, was kept closed by a 2013 deal between the right-wing government and two small centrist parties which say drilling could threaten rich cod spawning grounds.
Opening the region would almost inevitably trigger the government's collapse a year before elections in September 2017. The centrists demanded Lofoten be closed as part of the price for ensuring the minority government a majority in parliament.
But oil and gas newspaper Upstream reported earlier this week that the government had indicated in its original letters to oil and gas firms that blocks off Lofoten, including the Nordland 6 area, would be available.
Oil and Energy Minister Tord Lien wrote to companies on Thursday saying the upcoming round would follow existing rules on closed blocks and respect "commitments the government has towards its cooperation partners" in parliament.
Several hundred people held a rally, called before the controversy erupted, in central Oslo on Thursday to urge greater action to limit climate change and protect the environment. They celebrated the government statement as a climbdown.
"We have to ensure that the Arctic is kept off limits," Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace Norway, told Reuters.
(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Mark Potter)