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BP and Off-Shore Drilling in the Mediterranean

Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010

Reaction in the Mediterranean to BP's plans to start drilling five off-shore wells off the Libyan Gulf of Sirte in October has been surprisingly low key given the British oil giant's recent track record in the Gulf of Mexico. So far, the only group to express vigorous concern, at least in public, has been archeologists: The seabed off that stretch of the Libyan coast is rich in ancient sites and artifacts, including the remains of a sunken port once vital to Roman shipping.

Yet there is nothing particularly reassuring about BP's new $900 million operation, even as the company continues to deal with the multibillion dollar fallout of the Gulf oil spill. Drilling for the Libyan wells will start at a water depth 600 feet deeper than the Macondo well in the Gulf, which was some 5,000 feet. Significantly, Libya and Croatia are the only Mediterranean coastal countries that don't have a contingency plan in place to handle an oil spill in their waters. The Libyan ambassador to Rome, Abdulhafed Gaddur, told Corriere della Sera, "We know what we are doing. We've been doing this for 45 years, without advice from anyone."

Libya is a major oil producer, but Libya's oil drilling has been mainly on land, with some shallow off-shore exploration.

Last month, Italy's Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo did call for a moratorium on drilling by the 21 Mediterranean coastline nations, "to give Europe time to define a new and specific strategy for the Mediterranean." But there has been no follow-up from her own government, and little reaction from other Mediterranean states.

The Financial Times recently put forward one theory why the reaction in the Mediterranean has been anemic: "With cash-strapped governments courting Libya's oil-fueled sovereign wealth funds, countries such as Italy, Greece, and Malta -- all within a radius of 310 miles of the Gulf of Sirte -- have refrained from commenting on Libya's plans," the paper said.

But it's not as though the threat of oil spills is new to the Mediterranean. What Homer called "the wine-dark sea" is arguably the most polluted body of water in the world. According to one estimate, 370 million tons of oil are transported annually in the Mediterranean -- more than 20 percent of the world's total. A lot of it is left there, too, in the form of spillage from tankers, refineries and pipelines -- between 150,000 and 600,000 tons a year.

Meanwhile, BP has said it will apply lessons learned from its Macondo well spill to this and other deepwater drilling operations. But how reassuring it that, given that nobody really knows yet what happened in the Gulf of Mexico?