The Beacon

Ocean Hero Finalists: Maria D’Orsogna

This is the fifth in a series of posts about this year’s Ocean Hero finalists.

Maria D’Orsogna is a physics and math professor in California, but in her spare time, she has been fighting offshore drilling in Italy, where she spent 10 years of her childhood. She has even earned the nickname “Erin Brockovich of Abruzzo” for her efforts to rally the public and officials to end drilling in the region.

Abruzzo, which may be familiar to you from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine (a bottle of which I have sitting at home), is a primarily agricultural region east of Rome. The Adriatic Sea is nearby, along with a marine reserve (Torre del Cerrano), a Coastal National Park (Parco Nazionale della Costa Teatina) and several regional reserves, such as Punta Aderci, where dolphins are often spotted.

Maria’s activism started in 2007, when she discovered that the oil company ENI planned to drill in the coastal town of Ortona, Abruzzo. The company would uproot century-old wineries to build a refinery and a 7km pipeline to the sea.

Maria reports that there was very little information about the industry’s drilling plans, nor analysis on what it could mean for the region’s agriculture or fishing industries. At the time, Italy had no laws regulating offshore drilling.

While fighting the onshore refinery, which was ultimately defeated, Maria said via e-mail, “the attack on the sea began. I had to get involved.”

In 2008 the oil company Mediterranean Oil and Gas was granted a permit to drill an offshore exploratory well in Abruzzo called Ombrina Mare.

“I could not believe it,” Maria said. She set to work reading through the industry’s documentation and started a grassroots campaign to stop the drilling. She contacted EU officials, organized a letter-writing campaign and rallies, some of which she was unable to attend, since she was back in California. Maria has now given hundreds of presentations about offshore drilling in Italy.

Finally, last September, the Italian government blocked Mediterranean Oil and Gas from drilling, citing all the letters of opposition from the people Maria had coordinated. At least a dozen permits to drill in Abruzzo were pulled, and its coast remains free of oil wells.

Also due in part to Maria’s activism -- and the Gulf oil spill -- the government approved a new law that prevents any offshore drilling five miles from the Italian coast and 12 miles in the vicinity of marine parks.

But Maria says the fight is far from over. (Sound familiar?) Five or 12 miles is not enough, she says, and the industry has other plans for oil rigs just a bit beyond the new limit.

You can follow Maria’s work on her English blog at or, if you speak Italian, you can check out her other, more frequently updated blog. The BBC also wrote about Abruzzo’s oil battle.

Have you voted yet? Check out the other finalists, cast your vote and spread the word! And stay tuned for more spotlighted finalists in the coming days!

Special thanks to the sponsors of the Ocean Heroes Award for making all of this possible: Nautica, Revo and For Cod & Country, the new book by chef and National Geographic fellow Barton Seaver.

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