The power of one – how a physics professor defeated an oil giant

maria rita d'orsogna.php-2Unless you live in the Italian region of Abruzzo, routinely read the Italian newspapers, or are an oil junkie, chances are you have never heard the name Maria Rita D’Orsogna. Until a few weeks ago, neither had I and it was a serendipitous circumstance that brought this astonishing woman to my attention.

I tend to admire people with a strong sense of civic duty, who will stop at nothing to right a wrong, undaunted by seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Maria Rita D’Orsogna can be defined in many ways, and probably none of them, taken alone, would do her justice. Raised between the United States and Italy, with deep connections to the Abruzzo region, Maria Rita is a professor in the department of Mathematics at Cal State Northridge, in Los Angeles. Blonde, pretty and self-collected, younger looking than her 40 years, Maria Rita belies a strength and an intensity that might not be apparent upon first meeting her.

In 2007, a phone call from an Italian friend changed the trajectory of her life or, at least, it made her take a long detour. Not that she knew it at the time, when her friend happened to mention some “oil fields” that were being explored in a rural area of Abruzzo. By whom and for what purpose was not entirely clear. “But don’t worry about it”, the friend concluded “I am sure it’s nothing”. That night, Maria Rita was not able to sleep – the thought of these “oil fields” lodged in her brain.

The seaside near Ortona

The seaside near Ortona

In the following days, whatever research she could muster from this side of the ocean, revealed the likelihood that ENI – the Italian oil company of which the state is a 30% stakeholder – was going to start exploratory drilling right in the rural area of Ortona, made up of vegetable fields still in private hands, with the purpose of extracting oil. Maria Rita’s first letters of protest to the local mayor, a prominent daily and the local Catholic Church didn’t get her very far other than seeing her letter published in Corriere della Sera, sparking some citizens’ interest.

In the meantime, being the scientist that she is, Maria Rita wrote a paper detailing the environmental and health impact that extracting oil from a heavily populated area still subsisting mainly on agriculture would have (a prime example of disruption and ecological mayhem can be sadly gathered from the Basilicata region where a similar extraction program went ahead).

This was just the beginning of a personal odyssey that, over the years, included several trips to Italy to educate the local population; participation in town hall meetings (some also attended by ENI representatives); canvassing the help of environmental groups and politicians and raising awareness – all the while being vilified by her opponents. The ordeal took its toll on Maria Rita’s spare time, entirely occupied by this endeavor,  and on  her finances taxed by back and forth trips to Italy. But she never questioned it. “I felt it was my civic duty. If no one  spoke up, nothing would get done” she told me sitting down for coffee in a swanky Santa Monica cafe, a world removed from the fields of Abruzzo.

Some of Abruzzo's pristine beaches

Some of Abruzzo’s pristine beaches

The outcome, about five years later, was a sweeping victory: the state put a moratorium on any drilling in the area and ENI had to abandon its plans. Highly placed politicians, all the way to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, seeking votes in times of elections, and gauging which way the wind was blowing, opposed the project. The national press, at the beginning reluctant, wrote celebratory articles. At the center of the maelstrom, Maria Rita retained her composure: in a country where nobody does anything if not for a price or a personal favour, she never aligned with any party or faction. She was asked to speak twice in front of the Senate chamber, both times delineating in scientific manners what was at stake.

“Do you regret any of it?” I asked her.

No, not really. I did sacrifice so much of my private life, but it was worth it.
There is a great deal of personal satisfaction and gratitude from the local population,
and in many ways I feel blessed and humbled to have had this opportunity. It made me a different
person.”

“Besides winning, what was the most satisfying aspect of all this?”

“The human contact. In a country where selfishness and self-promotion are rampant, I came in contact with humble people who were eager to know the truth. I met people whose life was ruined by the oil fields that sprouted right next to their properties, and shared their stories with me. All I could do was cry with them”.

“And all of this, what for? Italy has limited oil reserves and the oil is very low-grade and requires heavy refinement. How can they think to drill in such a densely populated country, thus affecting the food chain, the environment and the health of the inhabitants?”

Very often, we witness injustices and do nothing other than condemning them, privately or publicly, because we think there is nothing to be done. Whatever forces are out there, we think they are bigger than us. Well, they are but, as Maria Rita perfectly exemplifies, all it takes is the power of one. Her story is fascinating, rich in details and characters, from the corrupted mayor to the self-serving politicians,  and I truly hope she will put it black on white and release it in book form.

“Oil doesn’t make the average population rich. Basilicata, where extraction went ahead in a similar manner as was planned in Abruzzo, is still the poorest region in Italy”. Oftentimes the right thing  is obvious, it stares us in the face and, especially in a country like Italy, the rich and powerful count on the populace’s disinterest or purposefully feed  misinformation to reach their goals. This time, they messed with the wrong woman.

With her example, Maria Rita D’Orsogna, reminds us that the world we live in is us: we can’t count on a hypothetical “other”  the redress wrongs, shrug our shoulders and move on. Even when fighting a dragon, sometimes all it takes is a first step – the rest of the army will follow.

If you read Italian, Maria Rita’s blog is a great source of information on everything oil related, from fracking all over the world to other  environmental causes.

Update on November 27, 2013 – The oil giant has lost all legal recourses. Oil drilling in the area is now forevermore out of the question.

Photos of Abruzzo found in the public domain

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13 thoughts on “The power of one – how a physics professor defeated an oil giant

  1. If you go to YouTube and type “list of the harmed” in the search box you will find videos of people who have been hurt by fracking. Please mention “List Of The Harmed” in your conversations and writings about fracking. Please thank Maria and let her know that her ongoing efforts are appreciated.
    Thank you,
    Jerry from Michigan in USA

  2. Wondeful to see scientists having positive impacts. It is unfortunate that government funding in the US and abroad is heavily weighted against human and environmental health. I am personal friends with many of the people on the “List of the Harmed”. As a concerned scientist myself, it is quite apparent that a public health crisis is emerging in the hills and (especially) the valleys of Appalachia. Shale gas extraction, processing and export in OH, PA and my home state of WV is poisoning countless residents, their pets and livestock, and the wildlife that is an important source of protein for many people in that region. We are attempting to connect the presence of biological and chemical agents that are being released through water and airborne emissions with antibiotic-resistatn skin lesions, persistent respiratory infections and distress, neurological disorders, tooth loss, gastrointestinal distress. The symptoms are evident and correlate with recent industrialization of rural areas by shale gas development. We have a capable scientific core here in the US and around the world that can address the human and environmental health impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing and related industries. But we lack 2 things: time and money. Exploration and exploitation of unconventional carbon reserves is progressing at break neck speed. There is no way for scientists who adhere to the rigors of the scientific method to keep up. It is like giving CPR to a drowning victim while they are still underwater. We MUST apply the brakes on this largely unregulated industry to provide the time necessary to address the many issues related to the chemical and biological agents we have already released into the environment. And none of this can be done without funding. There are many people like Dr. D’Orsogna working to protect the environment and people from harm at their own expense and, in some cases, peril. These are the heroes among us. They are here to protect us. We should be able to find the funds necessary to support them.

    • You are so right. In countries like Italy, there are even less available funds than in the US (if you can imagine that) which is why I found her story so intriguing.
      I am well aware of what is going on in WV and it is just shameful. Activists and documentary film makers are doing all they can to spreadthe word (the NYT also did a great series of articles) but yes, money for testing is indeed vital. Thank you for contributing to the discussion

  3. reminiscent of our countless colleagues and friends fighting every day in the USA against pipelines, compressor stations and oil and gas companies that are ruining our soil, air and water as fracking enriches corporations and impoverish us all….Thank you for sharing Maria’s story…

    • Thanks for commenting. I was interested in Maria Rita’s story because she was so successful in a country where corruption is endemic, environmental groups have no funds and fundraising is non existent. Also, Italians tend to pursue more selfish endeavours – civic duty is not on their priority list (and I say this with a lot of affection for my country, whose fractioned history has a lot to do with the current state of affairs). But her story has prompted me (and hopefully others) to take more of an active interest.

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