The new licenses allow firms to start exploring for shale gas, with further permits required before drilling can begin. The government said national parks and other important sites will be protected unless there are "exceptional circumstances."
Drilling for shale gas, a process known as fracking, has proved highly controversial in Britain with large protests disrupting some operations. The fracking process, which involves injecting water, chemicals and sand into shale rock to extract the gas, is firmly opposed by much of the influential environmental lobby.
Louise Hutchins, Greenpeace U.K. energy campaigner, said the protections on drilling in national parks will not satisfy opponents.
"The government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside, including in sensitive areas such as those covering major aquifers," she said.
Fracking near Blackpool, a town in northern England, caused two earthquakes in 2011 with magnitudes 2.3 and 1.5 and led the government to stop further operations.
A government investigation into the risks of fracking causing more earthquakes concluded that future operations would have to be cautious and must monitor seismic activity.