How an Italian Environmental Activist Became a Measure LV Supporter
One Woman's Journey From Opposing Oil Drilling in Italy, to opposing overdevelopment in Santa Monica
November 8, 2016
Maria Rita D'Orsogna is a theoretical physicist by training, who teaches mathematics at Cal State University Northridge. She is also a well known environmental activist in Italy.
I ran into her in front of St. Monica's Catholic Church one Sunday morning, picketing in support of Measure LV. It would greatly restrict the size and scope of construction projects in Santa Monica. LV is a very contentious issue, with strong feelings on both sides. So I asked the obvious question: What was a nice Italian girl like her doing in a place like this? And supporting Measure LV?
"I'm a teacher, not a professional activist," she said. "I don't discuss politics with my students. But I am a part of the Institute for Sustainability, so what I learned in 10 years of activism; I also try to teach the importance of this to students. "
I'm actually from the Bronx, my parents are Italian, they went back when I was 7, from 7-22 I was in Italy. It was an interesting but an unusual childhood.
A friend called me in Santa Monica in 2007 to say they had discovered and intended to drill for oil in Abruzzo, which is famous for a wine of the same name.
It was so far away, but I Googled a little bit and tried to find out what the situation was. Through investor statements, I discovered that the oil company is 30% state owned, and has really tight connections with the government. Maybe this is also true in the US, but in Italy the ties between the oil industry and the government are often official.
In general people who live in Abruzzo are hard working farmers who are not accustomed to a battle like this one. After I read more about it, I sent an e-mail to the mayor of Ortona.
I also emailed the Catholic Church in Abruzzo, and I also sent an e mail to an expatriate website focusing on Italian issues. Nobody really answered me. But then some local people who opposed the drilling e-mailed me back, and asked me to help prevent this drilling. They were also planning to build a refinery right next to the oil pumps.
I researched these things in the library, because I'm trained as a scientist. That's the key, not letting people feel overwhelmed by the research.
It turned out there was a deal between the mayor and the oil company. He became a part of a new consortium to provide services to the oil company. The mayor would keep everything quiet. My brother and I uncovered at least 1.1 million Euros that went to the mayor's little consortium.
This went into the press. This kind of backroom deal is common. No one saw it as fishy, but it cast me as this woman from California, no one had ever met, who was writing reports about pollution in our region.
Local activists asked me to go there for Christmas 2007. So I went there, and they organized a little tour for me, it was mostly very positive, people thanked me everywhere I went.
The oil company also wanted to meet with me. They were very condescending. "Come to visit us in Milan, we'll explain how it's not going to be so polluting. If we don't drill, you will be the cause of darkness for Abruzzo," they told me.
That was very offensive in many ways, I was 34 years old at the time, old enough to know better. And that's when I opened that blog, and I've kept investigating and writing about it.
The battle over this particular project lasted for 3 years. At every turn we tried to engage the community and the Catholic Church, which is very powerful in Italy.
As time passed, this became more and more political. I told local Catholic clergy that it was just not Christian for them to keep quiet at such a time. "This is about peoples lives. Protecting life is not just about abortion, it is about the air people breathe. What will happen to all these vineyards with an oil field here?" I asked.
To my surprise, the group of bishops came out with a statement opposing the oil operation. It went to the national press, and it was very impactful, because one of these bishops Bruno Forte, had been a consultant to the Pope on theological issues.
The governor in that area was involved in an embezzlement scandal over 9 million Euros. Ultimately, he was forced to resign. All the political parties asked me to support them, but I didn't take sides. I convinced them all to vow not have this thing built.
Politicians make promises, but don't always keep them. Once a new governor was elected, he didn't keep his promise.
In January 2010, the oil company itself withdrew. I also put pressure on the Governor to ban oil drilling in Abruzzo. Finally, the law they enacted is not perfect because it does allow natural gas drilling. I advocated for withdrawing that loophole, After that one big first battle, all the other ones had an easy way going forward.
But the story about this Californian lady fighting the oil companies spread. I did lots of videos, and people found me, asking me to speak in Venice, Tuscany, other areas. There were certain years I was flying back and forth 4 times to speak.
Offshore drilling is administered nationally in Italy, rather than being a regional affair. So the final say comes from Rome. In 2008, a whole big new battle reignited over offshore drilling. The proposal was in the Adriatic sea, proposing 5 mile offshore oil drilling, and ships FPSO to process the oil right there. A mini refinery on a ship offshore. This thing was going to be anchored there, and be active 24 hours a day, anchored 5 miles offshore.
So I became involved in that too, using the same methodology. This struggle occupied 4-5 years of my life. I got sued by an oil company and this British politician that wanted to drill offshore. As for why they sued me; they said they were just happy to have the Court invalidate my scientific conclusions.
Fracking in Italy has been experimented with but never happened on a grand scale. They do traditional drilling, not fracking. I do not necessarily connect oil extraction with earthquakes; the connection is unproven. However, Italy is so fragile from a geological point of view, that from my perspective it makes no sense to keep drilling to extract the poor quality oil we have in Italy. It's a miniscule contribution to Italy's need for oil. Most of the oil has to be imported anyway.
In 2016, the Government passed a law to ban offshore drilling within a 12 mile perimeter of Italy, where offshore drilling is prohibited
Now this is not a guarantee, but this is a step forward; because most of the oil drilling in Italy is within that perimeter, for us this was a big victory.
I was the scientific advisor, but many local groups emerged. It became a widespread opinion that Italy should not approve more offshore projects.
The first time I got sued I received it in my home in Santa Monica. That was scary, but I a lawyer volunteered to defend me. And the reason he volunteered is he also came from a community where they want to drill and I had also been there to give my oil talk. I did most of this stuff for free, nobody paid me for anything.
So, just by chance I became an international environmental advocate. I even went to speak in Croatia, and gave this talk to friends in the UK.How did I end up in front of St. Monica's? Well, that's another story.
One day somebody approached me on the street asking me to sign a LUV petition. I said sure, and he told me about it. I signed the petition, I want to be a little more involved in this, and I just wanted to do my little part, I didn't want to lead anything. I just wanted to be manpower.
Because I've lived here enough to see the changes in this City, Santa Monica, and I think it's too dramatic. If they're good buildings, why not ask people about it first. If they think they're so good for the community. The new developments are out of scale a lot of them, with what's been built here before.
And I think a moral person supports positive social movements in the community where they live.
Maria Rita D'Orsogna's website is http://dorsogna.blogspot.com/