BP will start deep—water drilling off the coast of Libya within weeks, a company spokesman said on Saturday.

“The drilling will start in a few weeks,” spokesman David Nicholas told the German Press Agency dpa, confirming a report in the Financial Times.

The oil field is believed to contain vast amounts of crude oil and up to 850 million cubic metres of natural gas. BP intends to access the resources within the next six months.

The company rejected safety and environmental concerns about the new drilling operation, which comes as BP continues to battle a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that has become the biggest environmental catastrophe seen off the United States coast.

The leak started when an oil rig that had been drilling a well for BP exploded in April, killing 11 people.

The field BP now wants to drill in is located some 200 kilometres west of the Libyan port city of Benghazi, about 1,750 metres below the surface — 250 metres deeper than the Gulf of Mexico reserves.

But Mr. Nicholas insisted that there are no parallels to be drawn between the two drilling locations.

High safety standards will be in place for the Gulf of Sirte operation, he added.

“We drilled many drillings all over the world, and did additional precautions there, including a full audit of the rig type Noble that we’ll be using,” he said.

According to BP, the field is also encased in geological formations that are only slightly porous.

BP purchased the rights to explore for oil in Libya’s Gulf of Sirte three years ago for 900 million dollars. Chief executive officer Tony Hayward has described the deal as the company’s largest individual investment to date.

The company has confirmed that it had lobbied the British government of then—premier Tony Blair at the time to pursue a rapid agreement on a prisoner exchange with Libya.

U.S. authorities accuse BP of lobbying for the release of the Lockerbie bomber so it could begin drilling off Libya. But Abdel Basset al—Megrahi was freed from a Scottish prison last year suffering from terminal cancer, not exchanged for a Libyan prisoner.

BP has denied that it was involved in discussions about al— Megrahi’s release. He returned to his native Libya after being freed.

BP had to suspend its operations in the North African country in 1971, when its leader, Moamer Gaddafi, nationalized British assets.

BP’s partner in the new drilling venture is the state—owned Libyan Investment Corporation, which will receive 15 per cent of proceeds.