Britain has granted Chevron Corp. a permit for the first new deepwater drilling project in U.K. waters since the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, brushing aside calls for a U.S.-style moratorium on new offshore drilling.
The decision, confirmed on Friday, means that Chevron can begin drilling an exploratory well immediately in its remote Lagavulin prospect in waters north of the Shetland isles off the Scottish coast. Chevron said drilling was "imminent" but no firm start date had yet been set.
Greenpeace, which ended a three-day blockade of the project earlier this week after losing a court battle with Chevron, attacked the decision as "bizarre" and said it was preparing legal action to prevent further permits from being awarded.
Britain's Conservative-led government has repeatedly rejected suggestions for a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the North Sea since the BP-operated Macondo well exploded April 20, killing 11 people and sparking the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
It argues that regulation in the North Sea is much tougher than in the Gulf of Mexico prior to the BP spill and has also stressed that the country needs traditional oil and gas energy supplies until it can wean itself off fossil fuels.
"The government is determined to drive forward our move to a low-carbon economy and develop the U.K.'s renewable energy sources but this cannot happen overnight," the Department of Energy and Climate Change said Friday in a statement.
"In the meantime we will be dependent on oil and gas," it added. "So it is a choice between producing oil and gas here in U.K. waters, where we have one of the most robust safety and regulatory regimes in the world, with all the economic benefits that will bring, or paying to import oil and gas."
The energy department said that lessons learned from the blowout at Macondo have been applied to the Chevron well and "steps have been taken to prevent the specific failures."
Chevron is exploring in waters about 1,640 feet (500 meters) deep. BP's Macondo well, which blew out in the Gulf of Mexico, was about a mile (5,280 feet or 1,610 meters)) deep.
Chevron said it has done "intensive work to ensure that our preparations for this campaign are rigorous."
"We recognize and accept that we have an obligation to the U.K. public to ensure that vital energy resources are produced safely, reliably and without environmental harm," it said in a statement.
The British government has increased the number of rig inspectors in the North Sea -- which has 24 drilling rigs and 280 oil and gas installations -- following the Gulf disaster.
But Greenpeace and other critics said a moratorium on deep sea drilling was needed, citing a Health and Safety Executive report in August that showed a spike in accidental leaks and serious injuries to workers on offshore platforms in 2009 and 2010.
Greenpeace said Friday the remote Languvalin site, 160 miles (260 kilometers) north of Shetland and hundreds of miles (kilometers) north of the British mainland, is home to a delicate ecosystem that includes dolphins and many other marine species.
"A government claiming to be the greenest ever should be taking us beyond oil, but instead (Energy Minister) Chris Huhne is opening the door for the oil industry and inviting it to drill in ever-more dangerous and difficult to reach places," said John Sauven, Greenpeace U.K. Executive Director.
Greenpeace activists had blocked Chevron's drill ship, the Stena Carron, earlier this week by swimming in front of it and attaching a pod to its anchor chain until ordered to desist by a Scottish court. The group's ship, Esperanza, remains in the area.
Britain tightened regulation in the North Sea after the country's worst offshore accident -- the 1988 explosion on the Occidental Oil-owned North Sea Piper Alpha rig that killed 167 workers.
(This version CORRECTS date of Piper Alpha explosion in final graf to 1988 instead of 1998. )