The UK government has awarded 46 exploratory drilling licences to firms, including Shell and Centrica, looking for oil and gas.
The awards were initially held back due to environmental concerns. However, the government said it is now confident exploring in the regions, including the North Sea and west of Shetland, is safe.
Environmental groups said the drilling may put marine ecosystems at risk.
“There is insufficient data with regards to the complexity of the marine environment in these areas,” said Adam Ma’anit, of environmental pressure group Platform.
“It is highly irresponsible for [the Department of Energy and Climate Change] to sign off on any concomitant oil and gas expansion in the region.”
However, the government said safeguards have been put in place.
“Oil and gas remains crucial to the UK economy – contributing around 2 per cent to the country’s GDP,” said energy minister Charles Hendry.