Italy Pursues Offshore Oil Drilling, Despite Worries

Monopoli, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea. (Courthouse News photos by Cain Burdeau.)

MONOPOLI, Italy (CN) — Italy’s coastlines are among the most famous and beloved in the world, and the reason why tourists flock with abandon to places like Monopoli, a walled city on the Adriatic Sea each summer. But Monopolitan fishermen and others worry that that government’s new plans to allow offshore drilling could ruin their livelihood and the tourism from which so many coastal residents make their living.

These coasts and pristine seas are also among the most fiercely contested public landscapes on the Italian peninsula.

Over the years residents, fishermen and nature lovers have fought against sewage discharges, litter, unscrupulous development, toxic dumping and excessive tourism.

This year’s major fight is over something even more menacing to many: offshore drilling for oil and natural gas along the beautiful southern stretches of the peninsula, in the near-shore waters of places like this fishing and sailing port in Puglia, on the heel of Italy.

“Nobody wants them,” Vincenzo Rottolo, a 58-year-old teacher in Monopoli, said of the oil and gas industry as he helped close up a family shop Monday for the daily lunch break.

Vito Civetta mends a torn trawling net on the dock at Monopoli on Monday.

“They will pollute, and they won’t give anybody work.”

Until now, drilling has mostly been limited to the northern quadrant of the Adriatic, off the coasts of Ravenna and Venice. These gas wells have produced substantial volumes of natural gas for domestic Italian consumption, according to industry and government reports.

With pressure growing to find new pockets of oil and gas, oil companies are looking the south, an untapped, gas-rich area.

In March, the Council of State, the nation’s highest administrative court, gave permission to Spectrum Geo Ltd., a British surveying firm, to map these Adriatic waters with powerful underwater air cannons, according to Italian media reports.

The readings from air guns give engineers a way to map underground hydrocarbon reservoirs.

The ruling was met with protests and outrage.

The air guns pose threats to sea life, in particular to marine mammals. There are dolphins and sea turtles in the Adriatic, as well as a slew of fish, octopuses and crustaceans.

Perhaps most promising for drilling opponents is Italy’s new anti-establishment government, seated in early June.

It is made up of the 5-Star Movement and the League, and the 5-Star Movement vowed in the campaign to stop offshore drilling.

“If they want to, they can stop it,” Rottolo said of Italy’s new government. “If they don’t, well’ that means they got ‘cash money,’” mockingly rubbing his thumb and forefinger together, a universal gesture to indicate graft and payoffs.

On the seafront in Monopoli on Monday, fishermen were firmly opposed to drilling.

Seventy-six-year old Mario Civetta says he and other fishermen oppose the plan to open offshore waters to drilling in the Adriatic.

“You can’t do it,” said Mario Civetta, a lifelong fisherman, as he sat on the harbor and watched his son and crew fix a torn trawl net. “Not in the Adriatic. “Too many people live from the sea,” the 76-year-old fisherman said.

Civetta is a town hero who was knighted in August 1971 when he saved hundreds of people from a burning passenger ship by ferrying them to safety on his fishing boat.

“A few years ago they tried to do it, but they didn’t because the people of Monopoli rebelled,” he said.

Today Monopoli has about 50 fishing boats that support hundreds of families, Civetta said.

“No, they can’t do it,” he said, shaking his head.

But his son, Vito Civetta, was not so certain about that.

“Sooner or later I think they’ll do it,” he said as he sewed up the torn trawl net he drags from the Drago, his fishing vessel. “They say there’s gas out there,” he said, nodding toward the Adriatic.

With black humor, he added: “Gas to kill us all with.”

Already, he said, oil companies are lining up to begin drilling in places not far from Monopoli.

For now, the government plan is to allow drilling 12 kilometers, or 7½ miles, from shore, according to news reports. Croatia, on the other side of the Adriatic, is also exploring offshore drilling.

The Italian Ministry of Economic Development, which has an important role in the expansion of drilling, did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.

Mario Civetta said he can’t imagine oil platforms and drilling rigs ever dotting a sea so prized for its seafood and beauty.

“It’s a delicate thing,” he said of the sea.

He said the Adriatic is an enclosed and largely static body of water, so in theory that makes it a terrible place for an oil spill.

In a worst-case scenario, such as an accident similar to the British Petroleum blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, the Adriatic would become one of the oil industry’s — and Italy’s — worst nightmares.

It would cause untold damage to a world-class tourism industry and unspoiled marine life, not to mention major maritime traffic disruptions.

“We’ve never had an oil spill,” Vito Civetta said, plastic knife in hand as he worked on the long net. “Just the usual stuff. Some sewer problems, litter. But never a big oil spill like that.”

Another major concern is offshore drilling’s potential to destabilize Italy’s moving geologic plates and subsurface. Worldwide, drilling has triggered subsidence, sinkholes, landslides and minor earthquakes. So drilling in earthquake-prone Italy is not taken lightly.

This potential danger was one of the reasons regional authorities cited in trying to stop Spectrum’s surveying. But the Council of State ruled against the pleas of Abruzzo and Puglia. Officials in other southern regions, such as Calabria and Molise, also oppose the drilling.

Spectrum did not immediately respond to email and telephone requests for comment.

Italy’s push for oil and gas is part of a bigger strategy to make the European Union a more significant oil and gas producer.

Many EU countries pay hefty prices to meet their energy needs, in large part because the continent relies so much on imported gas and oil.

The EU is seeking to build an energy sector less at the mercy of major producers, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

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