Sicily's remote south-eastern corner, where small baroque towns nestle among sun-baked vineyards, hardly seems the place to find Texas oil men on the prowl, looking to strike it rich. But if early soundings by a US company, Panther Resources, pan out, the area could be sitting on natural gas reserves of 50bn cubic metres, enough to keep the Mediterranean island self sufficient for years.
The findings have not impressed a growing army of politicians, bishops, writers and residents who are fighting a fierce campaign to safeguard an area that includes eight Unesco-protected towns.
"What would the residents of Rome say if we started digging for oil between the Forum and the Colosseum?" said the Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri on the front page of yesterday's La Repubblica.
"It seems you can still do what you want in Sicily," added Fabio Granata, who fought against the exploration licence given to Panther in 2004 while he served as Sicily's foremost cultural official.
In March, the bishop of the town of Noto, Giuseppe Malandrino, joined 2,000 anti-drilling demonstrators who accused Sicily's regional government of ignoring a Unesco edict insisting that zones around its sites should be free from development.
According to the surveyors, the opposition is unwarranted. "The closest we come to a Unesco site is 10 kilometres and the gas is 1,500 metres down," said Giuseppe Salme, a spokesman for Panther Eureka, an Italian firm controlled by Panther Resources. "Gas extraction has been going on for years in central Sicily and the facilities we would build in the event of extraction would be no bigger than garages. This would not create any problems for the historic sites." He added that Panther was applying to extend its surveying activity before possibly seeking permission to extract gas.
Opponents also fear that any drilling will hurt the nascent tourism industry.
"This area has benefited from up to Ã¢â€šÂ¬400m [£270m] in EU cultural funding, so why should we be giving out permits for drilling?" said Mr Granata.
© 2007 The Guardian