|Copyright , The Associated Press|
MEDULIN, Croatia (AP) — Peter Fries has been coming to Croatia for years after falling in love with its pristine coastline, fresh seafood, mellow wine and friendly hosts.
With Croatia announcing it will allow oil drilling in the Adriatic sea, the 60-year-old German businessman is having second thoughts about his loyalty to this Mediterranean tourist haven known for glorious sunsets over sparkling seas and white pebble beaches shadowed by thick pine forests.
That picture-perfect image, he fears, could soon change with the construction of giant offshore oil rigs on the horizon.
"This is a high-risk problem," Fries said in a warm breeze that stirred the sea's mirrored surface. "No one wants to swim or dive in a sea with pipelines, oil platforms and tankers."
Despite surging opposition to pumping crude in the waters of one of Europe's fastest-growing summer travel destinations, the Croatian government is determined to boost the state's poor finances by offering several exploration licenses to foreign energy companies.
The decision has deeply split the European Union's newest member state of some 4.3 million, a country still scarred by the 1990s Balkans wars and where the untouched beauty of the Adriatic is a matter of national pride.
Opponents warn that besides damaging the spectacular scenery, offshore drilling represents a grave environmental hazard, raising the risk of oil spills that could wreck tourism — the country's main source of income.
Supporters say pumping oil could bring billions of dollars to Croatia's troubled economy, which has been in recession for years. They add that drilling could ultimately help Europe reduce its reliance on Russian energy imports.
"This is an existential matter that will bring a better life to Croatian citizens," Economy Minister Ivan Vrdoljak told The Associated Press.
The latest opinion polls indicate that 45 percent of Croats are against Adriatic oil drilling, while 40 percent are for it — with those in favor living mostly inland and far from the coast.
"The Adriatic is like a jewel that should not be touched," said Ivo Lorencin whose main income is renting rooms in a quiet bay in the northern Adriatic during the three-month summer peak season. "If the sea is destroyed, we all are destroyed."
Croatia's Adriatic tourism industry was already devastated once — during the war for independence from former Yugoslavia. The stunning medieval walled town of Dubrovnik was severely damaged by shelling, and broadcasts of warfare beamed around the world kept tourists away years after the conflict subsided.
Tourist numbers of about 11 million a year returned to pre-war levels in 2012, only after widespread rebuilding and a worldwide media campaign under the slogan: "The Mediterranean as it once was."
The government believes that Croatia's strategic position between Europe's east and west could turn the country into a regional energy powerhouse, like Norway in the North Sea.
"Croatia will then become an energy exporter which will bring security of supplies to the region," Vrdoljak said.
He said that environmental risks would be minimal because the latest EU safety standards would be applied, and most of the new offshore platforms would not be visible from the main coast.
"All studies say that the (oil) production is a lesser environmental risk than transportation by tankers that we now use to import oil," he said, adding that there was no need for a popular referendum demanded by the opposition, and hinted at by the country's prime minister.
The initial exploration, which will determine the quantities and profitability of oil production in the Adriatic, is set to start in June and last for five years before commercial pumping eventually begins.
There is little doubt that there are oil and gas reserves in the area. In neighboring Italy, dozens of offshore platforms currently operate, some syphoning crude. There are also 18 rigs on the Croatian side of the Adriatic that extract only gas, which is considered a much smaller environmental risk than oil.
Croatia's Greens are unimpressed by government's safety pledges. They have started a petition campaign entitled "Say NO to oil in the Adriatic, say YES to sustainable growth."
"The risks are very high," said Mirela Holy, the leader of ORaH, a small Green party that started the campaign. "Alternatives are renewable energies, especially in the Adriatic, such as solar energy, windmills and small hydro power stations."
Opponents also say Croatia's tourist revenue of about 7.5 billion euros ($8.4 billion) a year far exceeds the potential financial benefits of oil exploration, estimated by the government at euros 160 million ($180 million) a year in licenses given to oil companies.
"In case of an accident, this (tourist revenue) will be completely destroyed," said Monica Frassoni, co-chair of the European Green Party, attending an environmental conference in Croatia's capital, Zagreb. "So, why the risk?"