LONDON May 6 Interest in operating new oil and gas fields in Britain's North Sea fell to its lowest level in seven years as the energy ministry said on Tuesday it had received 173 applications in its latest offshore licensing round.
The number of applications for field licences is almost a quarter lower than a round held in 2012 and 2013 which had attracted a record 224 applications.
Britain is struggling to stem a fall in North Sea oil and gas production that has eaten into tax revenues.
The government has announced new tax breaks for smaller fields and has sped up its licensing regime, but the latest application figures show interest in UK North Sea oil and gas is fading after a record-breaking year.
The energy ministry said it expects to award licences from its 28th offshore round in the autumn, but declined to give names of companies which have made applications.
Despite the decline in interest in the latest round, application levels are high in historical terms, which Energy Minister Michael Fallon said was good news for the economy.
"Making the most of Britain's home grown energy is crucial to keep job and business opportunities, get the best deal for customers and reduce our reliance on foreign imports," he said in a statement.
An onshore licensing round, planned to launch around the end of June, will test appetite for oil and gas exploration, especially shale gas, on British land.
The government is also in the process of creating an oil and gas regulator whose job it will be to ensure North Sea energy firms exploit fields to their full potential.
Around 450,000 people are employed directly or indirectly in the oil and gas sector in Britain, most of whom in Scotland.
The Scottish people will vote in September whether to sever ties with the rest of the UK.
The Scottish National Party is drumming up support for independence by promising Scots major benefits from keeping North Sea oil and gas revenues for themselves. (Reporting by Karolin Schaps, editing by Louise Heavens)