The question of the the deep drilling project in the Phlegrean Fields has brought many unsolved problems relating to the prevention and management of disasters, whether natural or man made, to the attention of the media and of the population.
What would happen in the event of a deep perforation of the Phlegraean Fields? Nobody really knows with precision! It could set off micro tremors, eruptions of water, steam and then gas and mud; or other events or nothing at all. The confidence in security displayed by the promoters of deep drilling (the Vesuvius Observatory) was recently expressed in a stern and intimidating message immediately passed on by the Mayor of Naples. This confidence seems to be based more on the reduction of an eighth of the perforation depth than on any real knowledge of a still unexplored environment.
Deep drilling has been carried out all over the world and is the principal method of studying the substrata and is today probably still the best way to discover and extract mineral and oil.
Drilling is rarely done in calderas unless to study geothermal energy. Indeed there are few calderas, at least in Italia, with the result that there is a scanty body of scientific literature to guide us through the labyrinth of doubts regarding the risks of the deep drilling project in the Phlegraean Fields.
It is clear that we do not possess enough research on the basis of which to definitively conclude the debate over the drilling project. We therefore need to put together other elements. Experts and institutions in favour of drilling claim that it is essential for the better understanding of the dynamics of the caldera substrata. However the headlines of newspapers covering the issue have concentrated more on geothermal energy than on research.
Those who are against drilling cite events in various parts of the world that were triggered by drilling. The most important example is the Lusi volcano in Indonesia. Many geologists believe that a perforation to search for oil carried out in its area was the cause of an eruption of mud that reaching a height of 18 metres has, in a period of six years, buried entire villages and will probably continue to erupt mud for a long period.
Drilling as part of a geothermal energy project in Basil in 2006 even produced a 3.4 magnitude earthquake. In this case, the company which carried out the drilling warned in advance that the population might feel earth tremors. However the technicians themselves were astonished by the force of the tremors with the result that the construction of the geothermal power station was halted. It should be pointed out, as the Observatory of the Vesuvius has already done, that the “hole” was injected with water at very high pressure.
These two singular episodes in the search for energy sources which resulted in dramatic human consequences should, however, strengthen our sense of prudence.
In 2010, 780 million litres of oil surged out of an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico for weeks before the oil company finally managed to tap it. A deep water platform literally went up in smoke and then sank to the bottom. The cause was a giant methane bubble that had shot to the surface and burst into flames wounding some and killing others. Perhaps there are few similarities other than the much vaunted level of safety during test drills at sea. The disastrous environmental effects of that accident are still being revealed.
The Observatory of Vesuvius in its press release specified that the perforation Bagnoli Futura intends to carry out will not go below 500 metres. This is an important clarification; and also an important turn about.
The term “deep” should be removed from the four international commissions that approved the project which should be asked if in their own countries they would approve a drilling project in a metropolitan area partially lying on a still active and smoking caldera.
The harsh tone of the INGV’s communication was a brusque reminder of the previous administration’s attitude. Sharp and terse, it echoed previous threats to make a formal complaint of having causing unwarranted alarm. This was followed by the removal of seismic data from the internet from sheer pique against the prophets of calamity.
Drilling is not dangerous, they say. However it should be understood that risk is not defined as a function of one factor only but of a set of factors. For example, the number of people exposed changes the evaluation of risk. The greater the number the higher the risk. If we take the example of a school classroom, the structure of the doorway will remained unaltered with up to 25 students. If there are 26 students, however, the door opening will be altered to permit an emergency exit, for example, in the event of fire. The activity is the same, but overcrowding is not an abstract data. Risk is also perception, as is heat. The Mayor of L’Aquila knows this all too well. In 2009, he was well aware of seismic risk and of the disastrous consequences of an earthquake. But he listened to the communications issued by the institutions, beginning with the INGV stating that there was no risk.
The drilling project in the Phlegraean Fields, despite being radically reduced, would take place in a densely populated area whose inhabitants are skeptical both of a city administration that confirmed a project without sufficient research and guarantees and of an institution that threatened legal action against those who demanded information and guarantees.
An extraction activity requires a security plan, structured according to law, that specifies the actions to be taken if a well erupts. This plan is not the responsibility of the Observatory of the Vesuvius but that of the company that carries out the drilling and concerns the employer, the work site and the Safety Director.
We believe that the drilling project does not imply a moratorium on the volcanic risk in the Phlegraean Fields. A well articulated and functional emergency plan, assured by both the Mayor and the Department of Civil Protection, is essential to meet the need for public safety.
It is laudable that Professor Mastrolorenzo who has been for a long time insistently demanding the creation of an evacuation plan, has offered his assistance in its articulation and development. As experts in this sector we have been impressed in the Bagnoli area by the ground roots participation in distributing information about the risk of the drilling project and the urgent need for an emergency plan.
As for the risk of an eruption of Vesuvius and the present incomplete emergency plan……
Translation: by Lisa Norall