Hydrocarbons exploration in Italy threatens ecosystems in the Adriatic and the Strait of Sicily

Whales, dolphins and sea turtles among marine life in danger from offshore activities.

Press Release Date: December 13, 2011

Location: Madrid


Marta Madina | email: mmadina@oceana.org | tel.: Marta Madina

Oceana is alarmed at recent developments in the exploitation of hydrocarbon resources along the Italian coastline that jeopardize the integrity of fragile marine ecosystems and the livelihood of coastal populations. The international marine conservation organization urges Corrado Clini, the newly appointed Minister of the Environment, and the Italian government to stop new offshore hydrocarbon leasing and set a moratorium on the entire Adriatic Sea to protect this highly productive and biologically rich area and calls on leaders to decarbonize Italy’s energy sector and invest in renewable energies.

The areas targeted for hydrocarbon drilling border beautiful Marine Protected Areas and other critical sites like the Strait of Sicily which is a breeding ground for rare migrating species such as white sharks, bluefin tuna or marine turtles”, said Nicolas Fournier, Coordinator of Oceana’s Brussels office. “The Italian government must demonstrate leadership against offshore hydrocarbons developments if it does not want to threaten its coastal economies and the quality of its marine environment. We do not want to see a Deepwater Horizon-like disaster in the Mediterranean, yet this probability remains significant under the current flawed European regulatory framework for offshore platforms.”

Of particular concern is the recent approval by the Italian Ministry of Environment to allow the British company Northern Petroleum to conduct seismic explorations off the southern coast of Puglia, in an area of more than 6,600 km2 bordering nine protected sites of Community Importance (SCI) integrated into the European Network of Natura 2000, a National Natural Reserve, a Specially Protected Area of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI) under the Barcelona Convention and a Marine Protected Area (EUAP 27/4/2010) under Italian law.

These areas are of extreme importance to conserve European biodiversity, as they have been specifically designated for their extraordinary natural characteristics, protecting endangered and rare species and habitats from increasing anthropogenic pressure.

After having recently acquired seismic data in the Puglia waters, in some instances as close as 7.3 miles from the shore, Northern Petroleum is now on track to commence drilling in the first semester of 2012.

These exploration plans will be detrimental to the 65 km of Posidonia oceanica prairie flourishing off the Puglia coast, which is a “priority habitat” to protect under European Directive. This marine habitat is not only a key nursery area to several fish and crustacean species, and a fundamental bio-indicator of the ecosystem integrity, but also an effective absorber of carbon dioxide. Studies on ecosystem services estimated the value of this particular habitat at more than EUR 14,000/hectare. Also at-risk is the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), classified as endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which travels through vast areas of the Adriatic Sea during its migration. The area is also home to whales and cetaceans, including Cuvier’s beaked whale and striped and bottlenose dolphins, which in the past have been stranded onshore with lesions attributed to seismic exploration activities.

The ultimate goal of oil companies is to drill all along the Adriatic coastline, posing a threat not only to marine life but to entire communities and lifestyles that have been intertwined with healthy seas for generations, such as fishing and tourism said Dr. Maria R. D’Orsogna a professor of Physics at California State University, Northridge and an oil and gas expert. She added that it would be unconscionable to allow for drilling in such a delicate ecosystem, with the perennial loom of explosions, leaks or dumping at sea forever threatening such pristine waters.

Even more worrying is that similar operations have been announced for the entire Italian eastern coastline and for Sicily, for which approval processes has already begun. These include among others the applications of Irish firm Petroceltic between Abruzzo and the Tremiti Islands; of British company Spectrum Geo for an astonishing 30,000 km2 of seismic exploration spanning the entire Adriatic coastline from Southern Puglia to Rimini; or for Australian company Audax Energy requesting to drill off the Sicilian straits in an environmentally sensitive area that includes the Talbot, the Pantelleria and the Avventura Banks.

Learn more: Oceana’s recommendations on Offshore Drilling in Europe