* Plans 20-25 exploration wells next year
* To drill Norway's northernmost well
* Says has the technology to drill safely in Arctic (Adds Greenpeace, Statoil quotes, detail)
By Gwladys Fouche
OSLO, Nov 7 Norwegian oil firm Statoil will move deeper into the Arctic next year, planning to drill closer to the edge of winter sea ice than before and drawing fire from environmental groups who say it threatens a unique nature reserve.
State-controlled Statoil, which is already active in the Arctic with licences from Alaska and Russia to Norway, said it would drill two wells in the Hoop formation in the Barents Sea, hoping to find more oil near a recent discovery by Austrian energy firm OMV
It will also drill several more wells near its $15.5 billion Johan Castberg find in the Barents, convinced there is more oil there to make the project, with up to 600 million barrels, viable after a tax change force it to suspend development.
"We can operate there with today's technology. And we have 40 years of experience of drilling in northern Norway," Daniel Tuppen, its head of exploration for the Barents Sea said.
Oil companies are keen to drill in the Arctic because it could hold up to 90 billion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But firms scaled back exploration plans after the grounding of a Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig off Alaska last year caused a public uproar.
Greenpeace, which calls Statoil an "Arctic aggressor", said this was the company's most dangerous foray yet, threatening the nearby Bear Island, a wildlife sanctuary and occasionally home to polar bears.
"This is too far north to have acceptable oil exploration in the area," Truls Gulowsen, the head Of Greenpeace Norway said. "We estimate that it could be just 14 days for an oil spill there to reach the edge of the ice in wintertime.
Statoil already runs Europe's only liquefied natural gas plant in the Barents as the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream keep much of the sea ice free even as similar latitudes in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska see heavy ice cover.
The planned wells are more than 300 km offshore, further than typical projects in the North Sea and helicopter pilots, who would ferry workers to platforms, will often required to fly with night vision goggles as the area is covered in permanent darkness for much of the year, Statoil said.
"We understand the concerns of the green groups. But we spend a lot of time on that question. We feel very sure about the safety of this well," Tuppen said.
OMV found up to 164 million barrels of oil south of the Hoop area in September at its Wisting prospect, increasing exploration appetite in the region as an increase in the recoverable resource would reduce costs.
All in all, Statoil plans to participate in about 20-25 wells off the Norwegian coast next year, down from about 25-30 this year, with much of the decline coming from the end of an aggressive appraisal campaign on the Johan Sverdrup field in the North Sea.
"We have had a lot of appraisal wells drilled in the Johan Sverdrup area this year. There are less appraisal wells to be drilled next year. This is the main reason (for the fall)," said Gro Haatvedt, the head of the firm's Norwegian exploration activities.0
Statoil expects to present a new resource estimate for Sverdrup later this year and based on preliminary figures, the North Sea field could hold up to 3.3 billion barrels of oil. (Writing by Balazs Koranyi, editing by William Hardy)