Pristine and fragile stretches of the Sicilian coastline are under threat from the rush to plunder the island's rich oil resources, environment campaigners warned yesterday.
With 100 new wells being prepared, energy companies have set their sights on the highly biodiverse region where the government has encouraged exploration through tax breaks. And campaigners were angered by the news that the family of Italian Environment minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, who will vet the drilling applications, has financial interests in a company working with Italian oil prospectors.
In July, the authoritative US journal Science warned that the oil rush on Sicily's south-west coast was threatening one of the planet's "marine biodiversity hotspots". But one of the key companies that stands to supply technical equipment to major oil firms jockeying for oil sites off the Sicilian coast is Coemi, which was founded by the Prestigiacomo family.
The company's managing director is Maria Prestigiacomo, sister of the Environment Minister. The company is now owned by Fincoe, in which Stefania Prestigiacomo held a 21.5 per cent stake until November 2009, when she passed the holding on to her mother, Sebastiana Lombardo.
Oil giants ENI, ERG and the Italian division of Esso are among the clients listed on the Coemi website.
No one at the Environment ministry was available to comment yesterday. But Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper quoted a ministry spokesman as saying that that since the arrival of Stefania Prestigiacomo, the laws on oil drilling had become more severe, with drilling limits being extended to five kilometres from the coast.
But Alberto Zaccagni, who is leading the campaign against the drilling off some of Sicily's coastline, including Pantelleria and the Egadi islands, said: "We're asking if this minister of the environment is able to objectively evaluate applications to drill here from oil firms given that companies managed by her relatives have business links with those who want to do the drilling.
"The coast around the islands of Pantelleria and Egadi contain some of the most beautiful, unspoilt areas with the highest degree of biodiversity in the Mediterranean. Any significant degree of pollution could prove disastrous."
Some experts have warned that should a major spill occur in the Mediterranean, then it could take 100 years to clear, in such a small, enclosed sea. Roberto Danovaro of the University Polytechnic of the Marche noted in the Science report: "The Mediterranean is much richer than we think. We still discover new species every year. We can't risk losing that."
Oil firms active in Sicily are already in the process of negotiating compensation payments for the environmental damage caused by their refineries. Pierfrancesco Rizza, president of the Sicilian branch of WWF, said that the fines were "modest given the enormous damage" that had been done.
Earlier this year Mr Zaccagni wrote to Ms Prestigiacomo to criticise plans by the UK firm Northern Petroleum to drill for oil off the coast of the Italian region of Puglia, which if approved he said "would represent the beginning of a veritable invasion of the Adriatic Puglia by foreign oil companies".