Almost five million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in the biggest offshore oil disaster in US history [Reuters]

US regulators have approved BP's new exploration plan, moving the company closer to drilling new wells in the lucrative deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico a year and a half after the biggest offshore oil disaster in US history.

BP's plan, despite being approved on Friday, will still require a set of permits before drilling can start, and is the first to have been sanctioned since an explosion killed 11 workers and ruptured its Macondo well.

The plan includes drilling up to four wells off the coast of Louisiana at more than 1,829 metres under water, deeper than BP's doomed Macondo well, which was in 1,524 metres of water.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) said BP's exploration plan meets the stringent standards issued by the government after the massive spill, as well as the additional self-imposed standards BP said it would comply with earlier this year.

'Heightened standards'

"Our review of BP's plan included verification of BP's compliance with the heightened standards that all deepwater activities must meet," Tommy Beaudreau, BOEM director, said in a statement.

The exploration plan proposes further appraisal drilling in BP's Kaskida field in the Gulf of Mexico, a 2006 discovery that could hold up to three billion barrels of oil.

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An early appraisal well in 2009 confirmed oil was present in the field. 

The field is in the highly touted Lower Tertiary trend in the Gulf of Mexico, a huge 482km swath across the basin that is estimated to hold up to 15bn barrels of oil, the largest oil trend in the US since Alaska's Prudhoe Bay was discovered the late 1960s.

In the days following the BP oil spill, some analysts questioned BP's future in the US offshore drilling arena.

But the US government has stressed that BP will go through the same review process as any other company.

Last week, a drilling official said BP will not be barred from participating in an upcoming offshore oil and gas lease sale.

Congressman Edward Markey, a vocal critic of BP in the aftermath of the spill, said the government may be welcoming the company back to the Gulf too soon.

"Comprehensive safety legislation hasn't passed Congress, and BP hasn't paid the fines they owe for their spill, yet BP is being given back the keys to drill in the Gulf," Markey, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources committee, said in a statement.

Source: Agencies