Greenpeace said it beggared belief that a company with BP's chequered track record would be allowed to work in one of the world's most fragile environments.
The British oil company confirmed last night that it had won a licence to work on the Amaroq concession off the coast of north-east Greenland – its first permit in or around that country.
The government in Nuuk boasted that the presence of big oil companies would accelerate the chances of striking oil but even some energy executives have warned of a potential disaster because of the difficulties of dealing with a spill around ice.
"BP and our partners ENI and Dong Energy are pleased to have been awarded block 8 in the north-east Greenland licence round, an area amounting to 2,630 square kilometres," said BP in a statement.
"North-east Greenland is a long term play, and we expect several years of careful planning before exploring this challenging and interesting region. We look forward to working with the BMP (Greenland's bureau of mines and petroleum) and partners to develop a 2D seismic work programme," it added.
BP applied for the licence as operator but has subsequently decided to hand that role over to ENI, in an unusual move that it would only say was "mutually agreed" between the consortium partners and the government.
Jens-Erik Kirkegaard, the minister for industry and mineral resources, said both BP and Shell were among those given four exploration blocks in the Greenland Sea.
"We were able to attract the largest oil companies in the world to explore for oil and gas in our area. It increases our belief that they are able to find oil and gas in commercial quantities."
But he insisted that safety would be paramount. "All exploration for oil and gas is conducted by following the highest achievable standards when it comes to protecting the marine environment and living resources in the sea," he added.
But John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace, lambasted the move. "With a safety track record like BP's it beggars belief that they would ever be allowed to drill in and around the Arctic. Even one of their main competitors, Total, recognises the extreme dangers of drilling in the Arctic and have pulled out.
He said the British oil group had "polluted miles of the Louisiana coastline and destroyed the livelihoods of thousands with the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe" and was now "sniffing around the Arctic, one of the world's most fragile environmental regions".
He added: "BP and its shareholders should realise the enormous risks of any move into the Arctic and the opposition they will face from the millions of people, locally and globally, who have signed up to protect the region."
BP abandoned plans for drilling off Greenland in the summer of 2010, in a move that was widely believed to have come after pressure from the government in Nuuk arising over worries about the public relations impact as much as the safety record of BP following the fire and pollution at the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.
Since the end of 2012, BP has not been awarded any new licences by the US government but has won stakes in drilling rights in the Barents Sea off Norway.
BP is also now a 20% equity holder in Rosneft, which has substantial licenses in the Russian Arctic.
Shell had been pioneering a new round of drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska but ran into conflict with the safety authorities after its drilling rig, Kulluk, ran aground.
The French oil group Total has argued that energy companies should stay away from the Arctic because an oil spill would risk doing so much damage to the environment. Christophe de Margerie, the group's chief executive told the FT in September 2012: "Oil on Greenland would be a disaster."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © L.C. Nøttaasen
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