The Obama administration on Wednesday auctioned a massive 39 million acres of prime offshore tract of land off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas firms, netting a USD 1.7 billion in winning bids. A total of 56 offshore energy companies submitted 593 bids on 454 tracts covering more than 2,402,918 acres on the U.S. outer continental shelf offshore Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Industry watchers and Obama administration officials heralded the strong auction as a sign of a Gulf of Mexico renaissance more than two years after the oil spill that halted most deep-water drilling and slowed exploration in shallower depths. \"This is a record-breaking oil and gas lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico,\" said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. \"The Gulf is back. There is great robustness in oil and gas activity currently under way in the Gulf, as well as interest in additional exploration.\" The leases that were snapped up included tracts as far as 230 miles offshore, with some in water depths over 11,000 feet. Statoil submitted the biggest single bid in the auction, with the Norwegian company offering USD 157 million for the rights to drill a tract in the Mississippi Canyon area, not far from BP\'s failed Macondo well. That is the largest high bid since the federal government began area-wide leasing in 1983. For context, Statoil\'s bid also was roughly three times higher than the top bid of USD 52.5 million during the last central Gulf lease sale in March 2010, just one month before the Macondo well\'s lethal blowout. The 2010 sale brought in USD 949 million in high bids. Shell Oil submitted the biggest total amount in high bonus bids, apparently winning 24 tracts by pledging USD 406.6 million for those areas. BP was poised to win the rights to drill in 43 separate blocks by pledging USD 428.6 million in high bids.