COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) -- Greenland's new government said Wednesday it doesn't plan to issue any new licenses for offshore oil exploration, an announcement that was welcomed by environmentalists who oppose drilling in Arctic waters.
Jens-Erik Kirkegaard, Greenland's new minister for natural resources, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that the 20 licenses issued to date were at a level that are "natural for an area like Greenland" and that the government would be "reluctant" to offer more.
Existing licenses would not be affected, he added.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas is in the Arctic.
Only one company, Scotland-based Cairn Energy, has drilled off Greenland in recent years. However, it found no commercial quantities of oil and gas.
Greenpeace, which staged a series of protest actions against Cairn's operations, welcomed the new government's policy as "a major step towards protecting Greenland from a catastrophic oil spill," but called for a total ban on oil drilling in the waters off the ice-capped island.
How to manage the race for natural resources off and on Greenland will be a key issue for the new coalition government that was formed after elections to the local Parliament earlier this month.
The three-party coalition is spearheaded by the centrist Siumut party, whose leader Aleqa Hammond is set to become Greenland's first female premier. The government will formally take office on April 5.
In a coalition agreement this week, the parties said they would review a law passed last year that allows large mining projects to import labor from abroad. Hammond and others have raised concerns that the law could lead to an influx of thousands of Chinese workers instead of providing jobs for Greenland's residents, most of whom are Inuits.
"As our country develops toward statehood, the need for Greenlandic labor is greater than ever," the parties said in the agreement. "The coalition emphasizes that foreign labor should be minimized."
Unlike the previous government, Hammond's coalition is in favor of lifting a ban on uranium mining, which could also pave the way for exploitation of rare earths, sought-after metals that are key ingredients in smartphones, weapons systems and other modern technologies.
A major rare earths deposit found on Greenland's southern tip can't be exploited under current laws because the ore also contains uranium.
Many Greenlanders are hoping that harvesting the country's mineral wealth will help them achieve full independence from former colonial master Denmark.
Copenhagen still decides on foreign, defense and security policy, and supports Greenland with an annual grant that accounts for about two-thirds of the island's economy.