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EU court OKs offshore drilling work in Adriatic Sea

An expansion of oil and gas drilling in the waters off the beautiful coasts of southern Italy moved closer to reality after the European Union's top court gave the green light to an Australian-British company's exploration plans.

(CN) — The European Union's top court cleared the way Thursday for the acceleration of offshore drilling off the coasts of Italy, another blow to nature lovers, environmentalists and fishermen.

The European Court of Justice's ruling came in a battle waged by the Italian region of Puglia to stop the national government from pushing ahead with plans to expand offshore drilling in the Adriatic Sea.

At issue was whether it was legal to grant multiple permits to the same company. In this case, Italian ministries in 2013 accepted four separate permit applications at the same time from the oil and gas exploration firm Global Petroleum Ltd.

Global applied for four separate permits because that allows it to explore a much larger area. Under Italian law, each offshore exploration permit cannot cover an area larger than 750 square kilometers (about 290 square miles). In all, Global wants permission to explore about 3,000 square kilometers of the Adriatic (about 1,158 square miles), covering waters between Bari and Brindisi, two cities along the Adriatic coast in Puglia.

After Global was allowed to move ahead and submit environmental impact studies for its applications, Puglia argued it was unlawful to grant the same operator four separate permits and that Italian ministers had circumvented the rule about permits not exceeding 750 square-kilometers by giving Global contiguous permits.

But the EU's top court in Luxembourg disagreed and found nothing wrong with the practice as long as competitors are not hindered from doing their own exploration in those same waters and that the exploration work does not do excessive environmental harm.

The court said Italy's laws setting out the rules for hydrocarbon exploration are in line with EU laws because they encourage fair competition and safeguard the environment.

It also warned, however, that Italy must carefully assess the potential for damage and take care to assess whether granting Global multiple exploration licenses could cause harm to the marine environment.

Global uses so-called “air guns” to look for oil and gas deposits. Air guns consist in using a high-pressure compressed air generator to generate seismic waves that hit the seabed. They have been shown to disrupt marine life.

“If the legislation of a Member State allows the same operator to apply for several hydrocarbon exploration permits, an assessment must also be made of the cumulative impact of projects likely to have significant effects on the environment,” the court said in a news release.

Global Petroleum is made up of a group of companies with headquarters in Australia and the United Kingdom. On its website, the company says it is most active in the waters off Namibia in West Africa but interested in the Mediterranean Sea too.

Drilling is an emotional issue along the Adriatic because of fears over oil spills and frustration that fossil fuel development is being encouraged even as the EU has made slowing global warming a top priority. The Adriatic is lined with beaches, coves, and picturesque towns and cities that rely heavily on tourism. Fishing too is very important.

The case against Global's permits ended up before Italy's Council of State, a high court over administrative matters, in Rome. That court is asking the Court of Justice in Luxembourg for a ruling on the issue.

Italy is deeply divided over exploiting oil and gas in its offshore waters. Historically, it has been largely limited to an area off the coast of Emilia-Romagna, but advances in technology mean it might become more feasible to drill for oil and gas around the Italian peninsula. Gas drilling is booming in other parts of the Mediterranean Sea, especially off the coasts of Israel and Cyprus.

Under Italy's current government, run by Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank and a technocrat with no party affiliation, the minister for ecological transition, Roberto Cingolani, has spoken in favor of more gas drilling and nuclear power generation as important sources of energy to help the world move away from coal and oil. Many environmental groups are opposed to both.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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