Italy’s Referendum on Oil and Gas Concessions is Invalid


On Sunday 17 April, Italian citizens were called to express their opinion on the maintenance of oil and gas rigs within Italy’s territorial waters. But the outcome will not be taken into account. 

‘Yes’ won over ‘no’, as  85.84%  of voters were  against preferences (compared with 14.16 of no).

Nevertheless, the outcome of the consultation will not be taken into account.

In Italy, a legislative referendum can be called to abrogate a law totally or partially, if requested by 500,000 electors or five regional councils. However, it is valid only if at least a majority of electors goes to the polling station.

Thus, the referendum is invalid, as only 32.15 % of Italians went to the polls.

Such a low rate can be explained by the rather technical question of the referendum, which puzzled Italians.  But far more effective in this sense were probably Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi and former President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, who clearly invited citizens not to go voting.


Do you want the oil and gas fields within 12 miles offshore to be closed once their concessions expire even if there are still resources in the subsoil?

Much Ado About Drilling

The referendum question concerned uniquely those drilling activities within 12 nautical miles offshore (about 20 kilometers). Most of the drilling rigs in Italian waters – they are 66 in total – are placed beyond 12 miles, and thus are out of the referendum question. Just 21 of them are within 12 miles (7 in Sicily, 5 in Calabria, 3 in Apulia, 2 in Basilicata, 2 in Emilia Romagna, 1 in the Marche and 1 in Veneto).

These drilling activities have been carried out so far by different companies, on the basis of a concession lasting for 30 years. These grants may be extended  for 5 years twice, which means that the total length of time is 40 years. And yet, another further five years extension is possible.

Under the past law, expired recently, drilling activities would have had to stop as soon as the grant ended.

However, the measure included by Renzi’s government in last year’s budget law states that drillings can go on as far as the deposit is not exhausted, even when the granting period is over.

In addition, the question of the referendum was not about  possible new drilling within 12 mile, which remains prohibited by law.  A ban on initiating further research, exploration and production of both gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons within 12 miles is already into effect.


What did the losers want?

The Pro-referendum camp asked to erase this new measure  in order to return to the normal expiration of concessions, as previously established.

Proposed by  the Regions concerned by Oil and Gas drilling activities, the referendum were supported by various local committees in the regions affected by the drilling. This network, called No Triv , was represented at the national level by an Umbrella Organisation.

Environmental organizations in Italy, such as Greenpeace, Legambiente and WWF, also gave support for the Referendum.

A ‘Yes’ victory has a strong political and symbolic impact, far stronger than the specific question of the Referendum. Indeed, the result does send a message to the Italian political establishment in favour of  renewable energy, which has been almost overlooked in Italy. Yet, the fact that the Referendum itself is invalid completely undermines its value.

In case the referendum were valid,  concessions would have expired within 5-10 years and the mining activity would have had to cease. However, extractive companies that has already got an extension would have continued their activities as planned. Only mining companies such as ENI, Shell and other international companies, that are currently benefiting from the original concession, would have ceased their activities within a few years.


Those against the Referendum

Besides the members of the Italian Government, as well as those of the oil companies, other organizations have voiced their concerns, such as the Italian trade Union CGIL, which fears the loss of jobs as a result of the gradual abandonment of the concessions.

A Committee against the Referendum called ” Ottimisti e razionali” has been created and chaired by former Deputy Gianfranco Borghini Pci.

A  more general objection concerns the Italian demand for energy. Italian rig activities, particularly those within 12 miles offshore, extract mainly methane gas, which provides approximately 10% of the national energy demand. As this amount of gas should be replaced by corresponding imports, Italy has not to give up what it already has.

As a majority of voters did not go to the polls, the situation  remains unchanged: searches and oil activities currently underway will continue until the deposit is completely exploited.


The origin of the Quarrel

Such referendum on the use of national oil and gas fields has turned out due to different points of view of the government and the regions on energy strategies.

After last years’ “Unblock Italy” law, Renzi’s government has managed to reshuffled the jurisdiction cards and to increase its own power on national resource exploitation.

The law introduced an environmental strategic planning to identify those areas of Italy deserving to be exempted by subsoil resource exploitation. As a result, ten regions got furious and presented their request for a legislative referendum last autumn.

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