British oil giant BP won 24 bids to begin offshore exploration in the Gulf of Mexico this week, just days after federal authorities lifted a ban imposed against the company for its involvement in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. As Reuters reports, BP submitted 31 bids ahead of Wednesday's auction in New Orleans, held by the US Interior Department. Its 24 winning bids are valued at $41.6 billion, though competitors Shell, Chevron, and Freeport McMoRan submitted winning bids that are worth more.

BP had been barred from bidding on new federal contracts for over a year following the Deepwater Horizon spill, but the ban was lifted last week after the company struck an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under the agreement, BP will implement stronger safety and corporate governance rules, and will be monitored by an EPA-approved independent auditor over the next five years. BP had filed a lawsuit against the EPA to have the ban lifted, but will now drop the suit as part of this month's agreement.

"We treat corporate criminals far more leniently than we do human criminals."

BP's business in the Gulf of Mexico has dramatically declined since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which led to the worst offshore oil spill in US history. Today, the company produces about 190,000 barrels per day in the gulf — not even half of what it saw prior to the disaster — and Shell has since overtaken it to become the largest deepwater producer in the area. The disaster, which killed 11 people, saw millions of gallons of oil pour into the gulf, wreaking widespread environmental damage that researchers are still working to gauge.

BP's winning bids suggest that the company is poised to expand its presence in the area, though environmental groups have criticized the EPA's decision to lift the ban, arguing that its agreement doesn't go far enough and expressing concerns over monitoring efforts going forward.

"BP has not addressed the cultural problems that led to the ban in the first place," Tyson Slocum, director of the watchdog organization Public Citizen, told the National Journal last week. "We treat corporate criminals far more leniently than we do human criminals, and that is a sad state of affairs."

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will review each bid before awarding the leases, in order to guarantee that "the public receives fair market value."