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Frattini questions BP drilling off Libya

July 28, 2010

By Guy Dinmore and Eleonora de Sabata in Rome

Published: July 28 2010

Plans by BP to start deep-sea drilling for oil and gas in Libya’s Gulf of Sirte should be brought before the Union of the Mediterranean, according to Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister.

A spokesman for Mr Frattini confirmed on Wednesday that the minister had made the proposal following a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.

Mr Frattini is believed to be the first government official in the EU to express concern over BP’s drilling plans off Libya in waters about 500km from EU shores. Italy’s opposition Democratic party has called for a moratorium on deep-sea drilling in the Mediterranean while Italian and Maltese environmental activists have protested against BP’s plans.

Italian news agencies quoted Mr Frattini as expressing concern over BP’s intentions to start drilling in the Mediterranean even before investigations are completed into the cause of the April 20 accident involving BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.

“All of us are paying close attention to what BP is doing after the worrying example in the Gulf of Mexico,” Mr Frattini was quoted as saying to reporters in Brussels.

“Certainly if there was an accident in the Mediterranean like the one that happened in the Gulf of Mexico then it would be an irreparable catastrophe because the Mediterranean is like a lake,” he added.

The Union of the Mediterranean is a community of the 27 EU member states and all the sea’s non-EU littoral states, including Turkey, Israel and North African governments.

Strongly promoted two years ago by Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, the initiative has barely got off the ground because of internal EU rivalries, diplomats say.

A summit of Union of the Mediterranean leaders is due to be held in Barcelona in November.

BP confirmed last week that it would start drilling “in a few weeks” in the Gulf of Sirte at a depth greater than that of the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil and gas exploration off Libya is a particularly delicate issue for Italy’s centre-right government. Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, has close ties with Muammer Gaddafi, Libya’s leader, and Italian companies including Eni, the state-controlled energy giant, have important economic interests in Libya.

Italy has also given the green light to a score of oil and gas exploration plans in its own waters since the Gulf of Mexico disaster began.

Günther Oettinger, Europe’s energy commissioner, has proposed a moratorium on deepwater drilling in EU waters but has received little support from EU member states.

Sources involved in Mediterranean contingency plans for a big spill have expressed their doubts over the ability of Italy and Libya to deal with a serious oil accident.

The five exploration wells to be drilled by BP off Libya’s shores are the first attempts to confirm the existence of oil and gas in the Gulf of Sirte following a deal signed by BP and Libya in 2007 that gave the UK company exploration rights over an area the size of Belgium.

BP has said it would apply the lessons learned from its Macondo well disaster to all its deepwater drilling operations, although investigations into what went wrong on April 20 are continuing.

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