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The British government on Thursday gave oil company BP PLC the go-ahead to drill a new deep-water well in Scottish waters off the northwest coast of the Shetland Islands, rankling environmentalists.

U.K. energy Minister Charles Hendry said he had approved the well after studying environmental and emergency-response measures.

"Oil and gas play an important role in our economy and make a significant contribution to our energy security, but exploration should not come at a cost to the environment," said Hendry.

He said the government had carefully scrutinized the oil company's plan for the well 125 kilometers (78 miles) northwest of the islands, which lie off the northeast coast of Scotland.

British legislators last year decided not to impose a ban on deep-water drilling. The decision was made after reviewing the circumstances surrounding the April 20, 2010, explosion at the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 people and caused the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

BP spokesman David Nicholas said the company had worked closely with government regulators throughout the planning and approval process for the North Uist well.

"BP has applied lessons learnt from the Deepwater Horizon accident to our drilling organization and capabilities worldwide, and is applying them fully to the planning and drilling of the North Uist well," he said. "The well will be drilled by the Stena Carron, a state-of-the-art drill ship equipped to meet BP's enhanced standards."

He said the vessel has a new blowout preventer _ a key safety device used to control unexpected pressure in a well _ which complies with the company's new, enhanced voluntary standards that were introduced following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

But environmentalists were unhappy with the announcement, given the potential risks to the climate and threat of an oil spill.

"New deep-water drilling is just not worth the risk because we should be phasing out our use of oil instead of chasing ever more difficult sources," said WWF Scotland director Dr. Richard Dixon. "BP has 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."

Greenpeace added its voice to the complaints, with senior campaigner Charlie Kronick saying the government is "taking a huge risk to both Scotland's fragile natural environment and its economy" by granting a license to BP, given its accident history.

BP has been exploring the area since the early 1970s, and has extracted 800 million barrels of oil from the region, he said.

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