Italians to vote on 17 April in oil drilling referendum

Prime Minister Renzi hopes environmental referendum will fail.

On 17 April Italians are called to vote in a referendum on the duration of existing oil and gas exploration and drilling concessions in territorial waters.

In it they are being asked whether or not to repeal a clause in the 2016 budget law allowing operating oil and gas fields to continue production until all resources have been used up.

The same law reintroduces a ban on new exploration and drilling within 12 nautical miles of the coast.

In the unlikely event that the quorum is reached and the yes vote prevails, companies already holding permits to prospect or drill within 12 nautical miles of the Italian coast will have to cease activities when their authorisations expire.

Some 44 out of a total of 69 offshore concessions issued are directly implicated in the outcome of the referendum, according to the directorate general for mineral and energy resources of the economic development ministry.

These include permits relating to two large oil fields, Rospo in the Adriatic and Vega off the southern coast of Sicily. These permits are due to expire in 2018 and 2022 respectively.

The referendum was requested in 2015 by nine regional councils concerned about the impact of further offshore drilling on their coastal and marine environment.

However, it has been opposed by the Partito Democratico of prime minister Matteo Renzi, which sparked controversy in March by describing the vote as a “pointless” waste of 300 million euros of taxpayer money and urging Italians to abstain.

Renzi himself is also on record as saying he hopes the referendum will “fail”.

"The referendum does not talk about new drilling but getting the gas and oil that's there out. If we decide to say 'enough', do we go and buy from the Arabs and the Russians? I'm for using what's there. I hope this referendum that could block 11,000 jobs fails," the prime minister said on 5 April.

Interior minister Angelino Alfano has also come under fire for rejecting requests to hold the referendum at the same time as June administrative elections on grounds of “technical” difficulties.

However, supporters of the yes vote, including members of a left-wing minority within the PD, have accused the government of trying to sabotage the vote by making it more difficult for the quorum to be reached.

The Catholic Church has invited electors to vote in line with Pope Francis’ 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato si.

Instead the environment minister Gian Luca Galletti has said he will either vote against the petition or abstain.

The referendum comes against the background of a high-profile investigation into an onshore oil project in the southern Basilicata region that led to the resignation of economic development minister Federica Guidi over alleged conflict of interest at the end of March.

Prosecution documents include transcripts of a wire-tapped conversation in 2014 between Guidi and her partner, Gianluca Gemelli, an engineer and manager of two oil companies in Basilicata, in which she appears to give him reassurances about a proposed government amendment to the 2015 budget involving the Tempa Rossa oil extraction facility operated by Total that could have benefitted him.

In its 2013 national energy strategy the government calculated that Italy has total potential onshore and offshore hydrocarbon resources amounting to around 700 million equivalent tons of oil.

This is enough to meet the country’s fossil fuel demand for five years.

Italy remains highly dependent on hydrocarbons, which in 2010 covered approximately 86 per cent of its energy needs according to the 2013 strategy paper.

Over 90 per cent of hydrocarbons in Italy are imported, the document said.

Laura Clarke

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