Understanding Italy’s 17 April oil drilling referendum

I have been trying to get to grips with the 17 April referendum on offshore drilling in Italy for the purposes of a short news piece for Wanted in Rome.

However, reading around the subject in both English and Italian has left me totally befuddled.

There is a huge amount of information available but little of it seems to clarify what is actually at stake, and the wording of the referendum question doesn’t exactly help matters either (see photo below).

The question makes specific reference to two existing laws (the first on environmental protection dating to 2006 and the second the 2016 budget law, approved definitively by parliament at the end of last year) but without entering into the merits of the cited provisions, making an on-line search for the full texts unavoidable.

However, this immediately threw me into even greater confusion since the part of the 2006 law implicated in the referendum (the third sentence of the 17th paragraph of article 6) doesn’t appear to exist.

No matter: reading on it becomes clear that this missing sentence has in fact been substituted by a clause in the 2016 budget law establishing that existing licences for off-shore oil and gas prospecting and drilling are exempt from a ban on hydrocarbon exploration and production activities in Italy within 12 nautical miles of the coast for the useful life of the fields and in compliance with safety and environmental standards.

Put more simply, under the terms of the 2016 budget operating oilfields in territorial waters can have their concessions extended until the exhaustion of gas or oil.

So the main theme of the 17 April referendum is not whether oil companies should be allowed to drill in territorial waters – this is already banned for new projects – but rather how long existing concessions should last.

To paraphrase the referendum question, Italians are being asked if they want the exemption clause to be repealed so oilfields operating within 12 nautical miles of the coast are closed once their concessions expire, even if there are still resources in the subsoil.

They are not being asked to make an outright stand against oil drilling, and they are certainly not being asked to address the (crucial) issue of renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

On a practical level, my understanding is that only three oilfields – Eni’s Guendalina and Edison’s Rospo in the Adriatic sea and Edison’s Vega in the Sicily Channel ­– are directly implicated in the outcome.

Assuming the quorum is reached (which is unlikely), and if the yes vote (to repeal the exemption to the drilling ban for the useful life of the oilfield) prevails, the concessionaires will be obliged to stop activities once their licences expire, mocking massive investment so far.

If the no vote prevails, things will carry on as normal and Italy will have wasted over 300 million euros of taxpayer money.

It seems to me to be a no-win situation.

Surely it would be better to use the referendum tool to address more urgent ethical issues facing Italy, such as same-sex marriage and adoption, end-of-life provisions and, why not, surrogate motherhood?

So far with the very vocal exception of health minister Beatrice Lorenzin (New Centre Right) the debate on this last issue has been defined almost entirely by men.

It would be interesting to know what the other half of the country thinks about it.

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Angelo Vassallo, the fisherman-mayor

Italy is full of unsung heroes, ordinary people who do extraordinary things and pay for it dearly, often with their life.

Il sindaco pescatore – the fisherman-mayor – is one of these.

Angelo Vassallo, a fisherman by trade, was elected mayor of the struggling coastal municipality of Pollica in the beautiful Cilento area south of Naples in 1995. At that time the local environment was in a state of degradation as a result of pollution and building speculation and the economy was in ruins.

During three successive mandates Vassallo turned the town around with intransigence and determination, making the pursuit of legality and defence of the environment his guiding principles.

He activated the abandoned local water purification system, organised an efficient local rubbish recycling scheme, created pedestrian areas and introduced hefty fines for dropping cigarette butts, among other things.

Slowly, tourists started to return to the area, the municipality won the prestigious international Blue Flag eco-label and national Legambiente ‘5 Vele’ award and the economy flourished.

Meanwhile, Vassallo’s administration became a model of good governance all over the world.

However, the influx of money and tourists into the area brought with it other problems, most notably drugs. And, like all other problems, the fisherman-mayor faced this one head on. This may have been his undoing.

In March 2010 Vassallo was elected to a fourth mandate with 100% of the vote. The following September while driving home one evening he was gunned down.

Four years later, in February 2014 an Italian gangster named Bruno Humberto Damiani was stopped at Bogota’ airport on an international arrest warrant for drug pushing in the Cilento area.

Police said the suspect, who was alleged to have connections with the Camorra operating in Naples’ Scampia neighbourhood, met with representatives of a family of hoteliers and criminals just hours before the fisherman-mayor was riddled with bullets.

Last month prosecutors opened investigations into a further three people in connection with the assassination.

The four suspects are all being probed for aggravated complicity in murder.

Vassallo’s story came to my attention by chance a few weeks ago, when I learned that pupils at a primary school here in Monterotondo are doing project work inspired by him.

While the Vassallo family, the community of Pollica and Italy as a whole wait for justice to be served, this surely has to be a fitting tribute to his memory.