Oil giant BP has been given consent to drill a controversial deep-water well west of Shetland.
The North Uist well is about 125km (78 miles) to the north west of the islands, at a depth of nearly 1,300m.
The UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said it had thoroughly examined BP’s environmental impact and emergency response plans.
Environmental organisations have expressed concern at the news.
Energy Minister Charles Hendry said: “Oil and gas plays an important role in our economy and makes a significant contribution to our energy security, but exploration should not come at a cost to the environment.
“That is why, before giving consent, my department has very carefully scrutinised BP’s plans and their emergency response measures to ensure their operations are conducted to the highest possible standards.”
BP said: “We welcome the government’s approval; we have worked closely with the regulators throughout the planning and approval process for this well.
“We are investing billions of pounds in the long-term future of our UK business and exploration is an important part of this.
“Ensuring our activities are managed safely and responsibly is our absolute priority – we have been exploring west of Shetland since the early 1970s and have safely produced over 800 million barrels of oil from the area.”
WWF Scotland director Dr Richard Dixon said: “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.
“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.”
Jonathan Hughes, director of the Scottish Wildlife Trust said: “BP is a company making baby steps towards diversifying into a sustainable energy generation business.
“This is a business model it will absolutely need to embrace if it is to have a long-term future as a global corporate success story.
“Drilling under highly risky deep water off Shetland – one of Europe’s most important marine wildlife areas – is a retreat into the past for BP, but also a wasted opportunity for Scotland.
“Their investment could instead have been made in clean, renewable alternatives.”
He added: “If Scotland wants to lead the world in the energy revolution we really need to move on from old oil to new technologies, a shift which will create many more skilled jobs in the long term, whilst protecting our oceans for future generations.”