Photo of Abruzzo coastline posted on Flickr by Vito Manzari.

The Italian government is pushing ahead with plans to permit offshore drilling just five kilometres off the coastline of the rural region of Abruzzo, despite warnings that they could be risking an environmental disaster much closer to land than the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

Crude oil beneath the olive groves, mountains and beaches of Abruzzo - a region famous for its wine - was detected by Italian energy giant ENI in 2001. The company unearthed several potential oil sites, both inland and offshore, and in 2007, obtained a permit to operate an oil refinery in the coastal town of Ortona.

When locals got wind of the plans, they began lobbying their local politicians to refuse the inland plant. It was only after years of protest however, that ENI finally admitted defeat in May this year.

Meanwhile, three subsidiaries of other companies - Petroceltic, Cygam and Mediterranean Oil and Gas (MOG), have acquired permits to drill offshore, from as little as five kilometres from the region's coastline. This time, the locals have not succeeded in their efforts to halt the plans, and despite a dire warning - in the form of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico - the government has ignored calls to review the contracts.

The subsidiaries involved:

  • Vega Oil - a subsidiary of Cygam Energy Incorporated, Canada. The Elsa-2 rig will be situated 7km off the Abruzzo coast and drill to a depth of 4,700 metres. It is supposed be open by the end of the year.
  • Petroceltic Elsa - a subsidiary of Petroceltic International, Ireland. The €29 million contract will see Petroceltic drilling at the same Elsa-2 platform once it is open.
  • Medoilgas Italia - a subsidiary of MOG, UK. Supposed to begin operating a rig 5km offshore and a desulphurization plant 9km offshore by the end of 2010, MOG put this project on hold on 15 March in response to the local protests.

The coastline of Abruzzo today

Photo posted on Flickr by "rogilde - roberto la forgia".

Old and young alike come out to protest

The latest protest, 30 May 2010. Images filmed by Raffaella Cartledge.

The yellow banner (Emergenza Ambiente Abruzzo - Environment Emergency Abruzzo) is a network of associations devoted to the anti-drilling campaign. Photo by Raffaella Cartledge.

"I keep my promises, the oil centre will not be built in Ortona". (Referring to a statement made by regional governor, Gianni Chiodi.)

The mock postcard reads "Hi from Abruzzo". On the back, the words 'health', 'economy', 'tourism' and 'agriculture' are crossed out.

"More wine, less oil".

Photos posted on the Facebook group "Comitato Abruzzese per la Difesa dei Beni Comuni". 

“We don't want the green heart of Europe to become an oil field”

Raffaella Cartledge is from Abruzzo and currently lives in London. She travels back home to participate in the protests.

The reason ENI was stopped from going ahead with the inland drilling in Ortona is because inland, it's the regional government that holds the power. For these offshore permits however, the regional government has no power, because the sea belongs to the central government.

Italy seems to be useless at protecting its environment. Oil companies are allowed to drill up to five kilometres offshore in Italy, whereas in the US it's 160 kilometres. The planned rigs would infringe on our natural marine parks. Once the coast is ruined, the region will die.

The north of the country has a history of exploiting us in the south with its drilling contracts and the delivery of toxic waste. I think that's because there's more money and power in the north [home to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi] and less awareness in the south.

This latest attempt to exploit us however has not gone unnoticed. The whole of Abruzzo is on fire. I don't think there's one person in the region (except for those set to profit financially) who wants offshore drilling here. We've got the WWF and the Legambiente environmental organisations behind us. Even the politicians are against the idea [except for the governor of the region, Gianni Chiodi, who was appointed by Berlusconi] .

Our heroine is Maria Rita d'Orsogna, who we call the Erin Brokovich of Abruzzo. She is a scientist from the region, now based in California, who's thoroughly researched the proposals given by the oil companies involved, and posted her findings on her blog. She's disproved their claims that the environment will not be affected, and brought attention to scientists' concerns that drilling in seismic areas can risk tremors. This is indeed a very seismic area; an earthquake in L'Aquila last year killed 300 people.

Several impressive protests have already been held. Local politicians have spoken. And yet, central government has not said a word. They're simply not listening."