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Low turnout sinks move to freeze Italy offshore drilling

A referendum aimed at curbing Italy's offshore oil and gas industry has fallen short of the necessary quorum to be binding. Italian government had urged voters to abstain, arguing it would harm economy.

More than half of eligible voters stayed away from the polls Sunday, preventing an

ambitious anti-drilling referendum

from succeeding. Turnout was estimated at just over 30 percent according to early returns from the interior ministry, well under the 50 percent plus one vote needed to make the ballot valid.

The initiative had asked citizens whether the government should stop renewing offshore drilling licenses within 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the shoreline.

There are 69 exploration concessions in Italian territorial waters, most of them gas, with 44 of those within the 12-mile range, mostly run by Italian energy giant Eni.

The political fight began last December when Italy's government extended all existing 30-year concessions until their resources were exhausted, while at the same time banning all future exploration and drilling in territorial waters.

Nine regional governments - alarmed by environmental concerns - backed the referendum that would revoke the extension.

Opposition parties backed vote

Mittelmeer Offshore-Ölbohrinsel

Environmentalists claim platforms near the shore present risks to health and protected habitats.

But Prime Minister Matteo Renzi urged voters to abstain and argued environmental fears were exaggerated and that drilling was needed for Italy's economy. Shortly after the results were in, he lambasted the referendum's proponents.

"Italy has spoken. The result is clear, above our expectations," Renzi said in a stern televised address in which he criticized those who had pushed for the ballot, saying it had cost more than 300 million euros ($340 million) to organize.

In turn, the "Yes" camp blamed Renzi for the expense, arguing he had refused to hold the referendum on the same day as local elections later this year.

The vote came at a politically awkward time for Renzi as an influence-peddling case centered on the country's land-based oil fields

triggered the resignation of the industry minister

two weeks ago.

His critics sought to use the scandal to bring voters out to test the government ahead of June local elections, in which Renzi's party risks losing control of several cities.

jar/rc (dpa, Reuters)

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