The UK government has given permission to energy firm BP for controversial exploratory work at the North Uist well, 78 miles north west of the Shetland Isles.
The development in the North Sea comes after the Chancellor George Osborne announced £3bn tax relief on oil production.
BP said in a statement today: “We are investing billions of pounds in the long-term future of our UK business and exploration is an important part of this.”
It continued: “Ensuring our activities are managed safely and responsibly is our absolute priority – we have been exploring west of Shetland since the early 1970s and have safely produced over 800 million barrels of oil from the area.”
As energy companies take bigger risks to extract oil and gas, deep sea drilling is becoming more common. The water in North Uist is 1,290 metres deep, leading to concerns from conservationists and environmental groups after the BP disaster off the Gulf of Mexico.
Energy Minister Charles Hendry, who gave BP consent to drill the deepwater North Uist well, said that the Department of Energy and Climate Change has subjected BP’s application, including the environmental impact and emergency response plans, to detailed and extensive scrutiny.
“Oil and gas plays an important role in our economy and makes a significant contribution to our energy security but exploration should not come at a cost to the environment. That is why the department has scrutinised BP’s plans and emergency response measures to ensure their operations are conducted to the highest possible standards,” said Mr Hendry.
He added: “This consent is very positive news for the West of Shetland following the announcement in the Budget aimed at increasing investment in this new frontier for oil and gas exploration.”
A legal challenge was raised last year to halt new licences being granted to BP exploiting oil reserves in the region and a large number of environmental groups have come out today to criticise the move by the government.
Dr Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland, said: “New deepwater drilling is just not worth the risk. We should be phasing out our use of oil instead of chasing ever more difficult sources.”
“BP have already made it clear that a major spill from this well would be a disaster for fishing, tourism and wildlife, with oil washing up in the Northern Isles and as far away as Norway,” added Dr Dixon.
Jonathan Hughes, director of the Scottish Wildlife Trust said: “Drilling under highly risky deep water off Shetland – one of Europe’s most important marine wildlife areas – is a retreat into the past for BP… Their investment could have been made in clean, renewable alternatives.”