MELENDUGNO, Italy (CN) — In the midst of sun-drenched olive orchards and farmers' fields in southern Italy, there's the incongruous sight of workers in hard hats, armed security guards, high-wire fences and heavy machinery.
It's here where a natural gas pipeline known as the Trans Adriatic Pipeline is connecting Europe to the faraway fossil fuel reservoirs of the Caspian Sea. This pipeline is nearing completion despite years of protests by environmental activists and local politicians, as well as official investigations into environmental wrongdoing by the pipeline company.
Europe also opens itself up to accusations of hypocrisy here: The development of this gas pipeline, financed with billions of dollars of European Union funds, shows that Europe's leaders, for all their rhetoric about how fighting climate change is the EU's “man on the moon moment,” is eagerly pursuing an energy strategy — at least in the near term — based around fossil fuels.
Puglia, the region that makes up the bootheel of the Italian peninsula, has found itself central to this EU strategy to feed Europe's thirst for gas through a system of pipelines that bypasses Russia, long a major gas supplier but also a geopolitical threat.
The Trans Adriatic Pipeline is the last leg of a $45 billion system known as the Southern Gas Corridor connecting Europe to the Caspian Sea with 2,200 miles of pipes across Greece, Albania, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Though initially fed with gas from the Shah-Deniz gas fields in the Caspian Sea, in time the pipeline could, in theory, draw in gas from elsewhere in the Middle East, such as Iraq, Iran and Turkmenistan.
With natural gas production declining in the North Sea and elsewhere in Europe, Europe has found itself increasing its imports of gas and looking for new sources. Imports made up about 49% of the EU's gas consumption in 2000, and that has risen to about 70%, EU figures show.
“The great gap in the European balance is actually on the supply side,” said Julian Bowden, a researcher and gas expert at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
He said projections show the EU will need to import increasing amounts of gas to fulfill its needs. Russia is Europe's biggest supplier, providing about 39% of the EU's gas. But a growing reliance on Russia has made many in Europe nervous, Bowden added.
“So a big question is: What else is there? Where else can we get the gas from?” Bowden said. Looking at the map in the early 2000s, Europeans put their money on the Caspian Sea.
To this end, European institutions have been pushing the Southern Gas Corridor project for more than a decade and the EU's development banks — the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank — have supplied about $4.5 billion in loans to develop the Caspian gas fields and build the pipelines. In 2018, a $1.7 billion loan to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, commonly called by its initials TAP, was the largest ever issued by the European Investment Bank.
The EU is now pushing in a new direction, too: It is financing work to develop a new pipeline that will import gas from the deep waters of the eastern Mediterranean. This burgeoning horizon for offshore gas drillers is fraught both with the risk of massive oil spills and combustible politics as Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and even the United States seek to profit from the gas lying under the seafloor.
The plan is for the new pipeline — known as the EastMed-Poseidon project —to run from the deep-water gas fields of the eastern Mediterranean to Cyprus, then cross over to Greece before eventually landing in Puglia.