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Sicilians mobilise against offshore drilling

August 9, 2010

By Eleonora de Sabata and Guy Dinmore in Rome, published: August 9 2010

Sicily strait conservation area

“No drilling” posters have appeared on Sicily’s tourist-packed beaches as activists and politicians start mobilising against plans by international companies to explore for oil in the island’s waters.

With concerns heightened by BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and its plans to start deep-sea drilling off nearby Libya, Sicily’s parliament and regional authority have voiced strong objections to Italy’s central government, while a dozen mayors are to meet this week to prepare a joint protest to Rome.

Some mayors only learnt from the media that rigs might soon be coming – although BP is not among the companies involved – and that one Australian company has already started deepwater drilling near a planned marine reserve off the volcanic island of Pantelleria.

“We are not against development, but this kind of activity jeopardises the biggest asset we have – the environment,” Roberto Di Mauro, Sicily’s environment director, told the Financial Times.

“We don’t want history to repeat itself,” he said, referring to the construction in the 1960s of oil refineries that polluted stretches of southern Sicily.

In one of his last acts in office, Claudio Scajola, former minister of industry, issued new procedures for offshore drilling in Italy on April 26 – less than a week after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. He also issued new licences, bringing to 20 the total for exploratory work off Italy, including 12 near Sicily.

Days later he resigned while under investigation for suspected corruption in allocating government building contracts. He denies wrongdoing. In issuing the licences, Mr Scajola applied a law passed earlier by the centre-right government that sidelines local authorities from the process.

But coastal communities fear some drilling will be close to marine parks and underwater volcanoes. They also object that some licences were given to small companies with limited financial resources to deal with a possible disaster.

The Sicilian Strait, between Sicily and Tunisia, where much of the drilling will take place, was identified by the UN Environment Programme on June 1 as a priority area for conservation.

It hosts breeding grounds for tuna, swordfish, sharks and turtles and is an important habitat for birds, whales and dolphins.

Its waters are constantly revealing secrets, including deep sea coral gardens found near Pantelleria only last year. “Areas we thought were devoid of life have yielded thousands of living species,” said Professor Roberto Danovaro from the Università Politecnica delle Marche, who this year discovered the world’s first known creature to live without oxygen deep in the Mediterranean. “We cannot afford to lose what we don’t yet fully know.”

ADX, an Australian company, began deepwater drilling for oil in the Lambouka-1 field last week. Its rig is in Tunisian waters but lies only one mile from Italian waters off the west coast of Pantelleria.

In case of a big spill, ADX would deploy clean-up vessels from Tunis, 70 miles away, even though its rig is just 13 miles off Pantelleria and the main currents flow towards the crystal clear waters of the Italian island.

Pantelleria, which will soon be declared a marine reserve, has no vessels to deal with an oil spill. Neither local authorities nor Italy’s coast guard were informed about the drilling.

Wolfgang Zimmer, managing director of ADX, stressed his company’s safety record and said Lambouka-1 could be the Mediterranean’s most exciting prospect. ADX also has permission to operate in the Italian section of the field.

Speaking to the FT, he admitted he did not even know that deepwater corals existed. ADX was drilling in mud, he said.

Pantelleria’s predicament has highlighted confusion within the Italian government over future deepwater drilling, and the lack of Mediterranean-wide co-ordination, despite risks to the sea’s confined waters.

Stefania Prestigiacomo, environment minister, angered the oil industry and surprised her colleagues when she told the FT last month that she favoured the idea of a moratorium on deepwater drilling in light of BP’s spill.

Franco Frattini, foreign minister, said the issue should be referred to the Union of the Mediterranean, a community of EU and littoral states that has yet to gain traction two years after being proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president.

Italian officials point out that four rigs operated by Italy’s Eni and Edison have extracted oil from shallow Sicilian waters since the 1980s without big accidents. Production last year rose 130 per cent.

Environmental protection sources reply that government cuts have undermined Italy’s readiness to deal with a big spill even as it prepares to expand drilling.

According to the industry ministry, companies with licences or pending applications to explore for oil or gas off Sicily include: Eni, Edison, ADX, BG International, Northern Petroleum, Shell Italia, Northsun Italia, Petroceltic, Hunt Oil, San Leon Energy, Nautical Petroleum, Puma Petroleum and Sviluppo Risorse Naturali.

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