* Licences first step in exploration process
* Additional guidance issued on natural beauty spots
LONDON, July 28 The British government said on Monday it had opened a new licensing round for companies wanting to explore for onshore oil and gas in a move aimed at speeding up shale exploration.
The licences are the first step in the exploration process but do not give outright permission to drill.
Oil and gas exploration companies must also obtain planning permission, environmental permits and health and safety approvals before they can receive final go-ahead to drill in Britain.
The government also published additional guidance for companies wanting to drill for unconventional oil and gas, such as shale, in areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks and world heritage sites.
If firms want to drill in such areas, they have to submit "environmental awareness" statements to show they recognise the importance of these sites.
Applications for such sites should be refused unless there are exceptional circumstances and it is in the public interest, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said.
When an application in such areas is refused by local authorities and the developer appeals that decision, Britain's Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles will personally consider the appeals for at least a 12-month period, DECC added.
"Ultimately, done right, speeding up shale will mean more jobs and opportunities for people and help ensure long-term economic and energy security for our country," said Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock.
A third of Britain's gas needs can come from its own shale gas by the early 2030s if government policies and economic growth allow firms to invest in gas exploration, the National Grid said this month.
Britain is betting on the development of shale gas to help curb its growing dependence on imports and to stem a decline in oil and gas tax receipts as output from the mature North Sea basin dwindles.
Opposition to the unconventional drilling method has been growing in Britain, however, on grounds that it is potentially harmful to the environment and after one project triggered earth tremors.
(Reporting by Nina Chestney; editing by Jason Neely)