OIL and gas firms have shown strong interest in what are considered to be frontier areas off the UK in the latest licensing round.

However, industry leaders noted that while exploration activity is increasing off the UK the number of wells drilled hit a record low last year.

Announcing the results of the 31st UK Offshore Licensing Round the Oil & Gas Authority said the awards made would act as a strong platform for future exploration and production in frontier areas ranging from the East Shetland Platform to the Irish Sea.

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The regulator awarded licences covering 141 blocks to 30 companies in total ranging from super-majors with a long presence in the area to small firms.

The giants awarded acreage included Royal Dutch Shell, BP, France's Total and Equinor of Norway.

Equinor was awarded five licences in the Moray Firth and East of Shetland in a success the company said would help it unlock the remaining potential in both underexplored and more mature areas of a prolific basin.

Equinor also underlined the potential of the giant Rosebank discovery West of Shetland after buying in to it last year.

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The company said it expected to make a final investment decision by May 2022 on whether to proceed with the development of the find.

“Together with our partners, Suncor and Siccar Point, we are fully focused on bringing this much anticipated UK development to realisation,” said Hedda Felin, Equinor’s senior vice president for UK and Ireland offshore.

Smaller firms awarded acreage included Norfolk-based Burgate Exploration, which won licences in the East Irish Sea. Six new entrants won licences including Cycle Petroleum.

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Deirdre Michie, chief executive of trade body Oil & Gas UK said: “The momentum around exploration is building, although drilling continues to be at an all-time low.”

The oil price fall since 2014 has dented enthusiasm for exploration.