The US government has offered up new areas of the central Gulf of Mexico for drilling for the first time since the 2010 BP oil disaster in the area and received $1.7bn in winning bids, officials have said.
Environmental groups tried to block the long-awaited sale by filing a lawsuit earlier this week, arguing that it will endanger the already damaged ecosystem.
"The government is gambling with the Gulf by encouraging even more offshore drilling in the same exceedingly deep waters that have already proven to be treacherous, rather than investing in safer clean energy that creates jobs without risking lives and livelihoods," said Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for North America at Oceana, one of five groups filing the suit.
"This move sets us up for another disastrous oil spill, threatening more human lives, livelihoods, industries and marine life, including endangered species, in the greedy rush to expand offshore drilling."
Despite the fact that evidence of ongoing destruction from BP's 2010 disaster continues to surface, the Obama administration said it had conducted a "rigorous analysis" of the impact of the spill prior to opening up new areas to leasing as part of a plan to expand "safe and responsible" domestic production.
"This sale, part of the president’s all-of-the-above energy strategy, is good news for American jobs, good news for the Gulf economy, and will bring additional domestic resources to market," Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a statement.
Officials estimate that energy companies will be able to recover between 800 million and 1.6 billion barrels of oil if the tracts are fully developed.
The Interior Department had offered more than 39 million acres of new tracts ranging from three to more than 370 kilometres off the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in depths ranging from three to more than 3,400 metres, the latter being more than twice the depth of the Macondo well which was the site of BP's 2010 disaster.
The sale comes six months after the government opened up 21 million acres, an area about the size of South Carolina, in the western Gulf of Mexico and received $337m in winning bids for over a million acres off the coast of Texas.
The April 20, 2010 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers, blackened beaches in five states and devastated the Gulf Coast's tourism and fishing industries.
It took 87 days to cap BP's runaway well, 1,500 meters below the surface, that spewed about 4.9 million barrels of oil into the gulf.
Seafood deformities, human sickness, and deep sea oil plumes from the disaster continue to afflict the region.
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