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To paraphrase the referendum question, Italians are being asked if they want the exemption clause to be repealed so oilfields operating within 12 nautical miles of the coast are closed once their concessions expire, even if there are still resources in the subsoil.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