Norway''s national oil agency announced 44 companies have applied for 227 offshore oil exploration licenses near existing fields, a strong sign of interest as the country attempts to fight falling production, reported by the Associated Press. Norway began offering unexplored blocks near existing finds in the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea in what it calls Awards in Predefined Areas, or APA. The number of companies that applied by the Sept. 15 deadline was slightly below the record set last year of 47 applicants. Norway''s oil production peaked at about 3.4 million barrels per day in 2001, and has now declined to about 2 million barrels per day. The government wants oil companies to help shore up production by developing small finds near existing fields, which would sharply cut costs by linking new fields into already producing platforms and oil pipelines. Some of the companies applying for licenses to be awarded late this year or early next year included: A/S Norske Shell, BP Norge AS, Chevron Norge AS, ConocoPhillips Skandinavia AS and StatoilHydro Petroleum AS. Norway also offers exploration permits for new, unexplored areas in separate licensing rounds.