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Move to halt BP drilling off Libya

August 1, 2010

By Guy Dinmore and Eleonora de Sabata in Rome Published: August 1 2010

Plans by BP to start drilling for oil and gas off Libya within weeks has prompted growing calls, joined by an Italian minister, for a moratorium on deepwater operations while Mediterranean states assess the environmental impact in light of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Senior Italian officials in the environmental protection sector, who asked not to be named, warn that Mediterranean states are not equipped to deal with an oil spill of that magnitude.

Stefania Prestigiacomo, Italy’s environment minister, has become the first senior official within the European Union to suggest that a moratorium might be appropriate while the Mediterranean’s 21 littoral states find a “common voice“.

Plans for deepwater drilling in the confined waters of the Mediterranean “give rise to serious concern”, she told the Financial Times in written comments.

Referring to a proposal by Guenther Oettinger, the EU’s energy commissoner for a moratorium within EU waters, she added: “A moratorium could be a right approach for potentially dangerous drilling… to give Europe time to define a new and specific strategy for the Mediterranean especially in light of the risk exposed by the Deepwater Horizon spill.”
BP said last week it would begin drilling the first of five wells in Libya’s Gulf of Sirte “within weeks”, some 200 metres deeper than the Macondo well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig which exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and causing the most serious environmental disaster ever in US waters.
Environmental organisations, including WWF, as well as local Italian politicians and Italy’s opposition Democratic party have also called for a suspension of deepwater drilling in the Mediterranean. Libya’s Gulf of Sirte lies some 500 km from Italian and Maltese territory.
BP shrugged off calls for a moratorium. “There isn’t one suggested,” a BP spokesman told the FT. “And who is the authority for the ‘Med’?” he asked.
BP’s comments in fact reflect the lack of an institutional mechanism coordinating Mediterranean-wide policies while individual states — including Italy — have recently approved a considerable number of oil and gas exploration projects of their own, some in deep waters.
Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, last week suggested that BP’s activities in the Gulf of Sirte be referred to the Union for the Mediterranean. But the proposed community of EU and littoral states has had a difficult birth, first stalled by internal EU rivalries and then complicated by tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
The Malta-based UN agency charged with coordinating responses to maritime pollution in the Mediterranean says Libya does not yet have a national contingency plan for oil spill response but it is working on one.
Data provided by the Libyan authorities to Rempec — the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre — says they have the equipment to tackle a major spill, however.
But senior Italian officials in the environmental protection sector  insisted that Mediterranean states lacked the capacity to deal with a spill on the scale of the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Italian budget cuts had undermined what had once been one of Europe’s most advanced response systems, they said.
One source said he was told by a senior Libyan official last year that Libya was not able to deal with a major spill. A Rempec spokesman said Libya had made considerable progress since then.
Howeve, Rempec also points out that even with a massive response only 10 per cent of oil spilled in major disasters is recovered.
Environmentalists are concerned about the impact of a possible spill on the Mediterranean’s diverse sealife, including endangered bluefin tuna and loggerhead turtles that breed in the Gulf of Sirte. The Gulf of Mexico is also providing scientists with new information on how spills spread hundreds of miles beneath the surface, raising concerns over dangers presented, for example, to deepsea coral formations.
BP said its preparations were “extensive, rigorous and detailed”. It said it would not start any operation before it was fully confident it would be safe and efficient. BP said its spill contingency plan was based on “the standard industry three-tier model for preparedness”. For Libya it had mobilised Tier 3 equipment for a major spill held by Oil Spill Response Ltd based in Southamption, UK, which could be operational within 18 to 24 hours of mobilisation.

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