ENERGY companies could begin drilling beneath the Firth of Clyde after millions of pounds in funding was made available to re-analyse archive data for potential pockets of oil and gas.

The Oil and Gas Authority, which regulates onshore and offshore oil and gas operations in the UK, has awarded contracts worth more than £2.5 million to Schlumberger WesternGeco and DownUnder Geosolutions to examine old images of the UK Continental Shelf.

Modern technological techniques will be able to pinpoint whether previously under-explored areas show signs of oil and gas deposits.

Among the areas set to go under the microscope are the East Shetland Platform, the Firth of Clyde, and the Minches - channels separating mainland Scotland from the Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Skye from Harris and North Uist.

The existing imagery, known as seismic data, dates back decades.

BP previously undertook seismic surveys south of Arran and east of Kintyre in the early 1980s, but government papers declassified in 2013 revealed that the Ministry of Defence objected to the energy giant installing drilling rigs in the area amid fears it would interfere with naval operations, particularly the Trident nuclear-armed submarines based on the Clyde at Faslane.

The Scottish Government vowed to expel Trident from Scottish waters in the event of independence and, in 2013, then-Energy Minister Fergus Ewing said there would be "no ‘no-go’ areas for exploration" off Scotland.

A classification anomaly means that potential oilfields beneath the Firth of Clyde and the Minches would be considered "onshore". As a result, it would be up to the Scottish Government to decide whether to approve them for exploration licences if the updated analysis showed strong evidence of gas and oil deposits.

In addition to the Scottish sites, imagery of rocks beneath the Bristol Channel, Cardigan Bay and Celtic Sea, Morecambe Bay and East Irish Sea will also be "re-processed" between this year and next year.

The re-processed datasets will complement new seismic data currently being gathered as part of a £40m scoping exercise funded by the UK Government between 2015 and 2016.

The 2016 phase began last month gathering new seismic data on the East Shetland Platform and South West Britain.

The data is expected to be collected by the end of this year, paving the way for hundreds of blocks in the East Shetland and South-West Britain shelf to be opened up to exploration licensing applications from the energy industry between April and June 2017.

It comes after 1,261 blocks in the Rockall Trough and Mid-North Sea High areas were offered up for exploration licences in July this year on the back of new seismic data gathered during the 2015 phase.

Nick Richardson, OGA Exploration and New Ventures Manager, said: “The combination of the Rockall and Mid-North Sea High data acquired in 2015, the two new broadband seismic datasets being acquired this summer in South West Britain and the East Shetland Platform, and the reprocessing of legacy datasets in 2016 and 2017 will form part of a consistent, modern, regional two-dimensional seismic dataset across large, under-explored areas of the UK Continental Shelf that will be provided to the industry for a nominal fee.

“These data have the potential to unlock exploration potential in areas that have not been looked in earnest for decades and consequently have not benefitted from the latest acquisition and processing techniques."