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.
“On the one hand, they are promoting a European Green New Deal, and talking about net carbon and low emissions, and talking about the climate crisis, and also about being democratic and a pillar of hope for the rest of the world,” said Ya’ara Peretz, a campaigner with Green Course, an Israeli environmental group. “And on the other hand they approve 55 fossil fuel projects and are giving money for different projects in different areas which cause more disputes between countries that don’t necessarily want these projects but they are forced into them. There’s a big hypocrisy here.”
The EU’s backing for gas projects such as these pipelines and for ports designed to handle imports of liquefied natural gas — often derived from controversial fracking operations — is under scrutiny for violating the bloc’s standards for reducing carbon emissions. The European Ombudsman, an agency that monitors EU institutions, has opened an inquiry into whether the EU adequately vets gas projects before placing them on a list of works eligible for public funding. The European Commission gave the green light to public funding for both the EastMed-Poseidon and Trans Adriatic projects.
The commission says it did not violate EU law in approving the pipelines for public funding.
In an email, the commission said the Southern Gas Corridor is part of a strategy to diversify European gas supplies and that, even while domestic gas reserves in the EU are declining, gas will be needed during the transition away from dirtier fuels such as lignite and coal on the path to seeking to become carbon neutral by 2050. The EU’s ambition is to vastly increase both its renewable energy capacity and use of hydrogen and biogas.
The commission also said it has taken steps to make sure that future projects it approves for public funding meet the goals of the EU’s Green Deal objectives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the future, it said, pipelines will need to both pass market and sustainability tests.
While the EU says it is pushing these pipelines as a geopolitical strategy to lessen its dependence on Russian gas, but many question the basis of this rationale.
For instance, gas brought all the way from Azerbaijan is more expensive than Russian gas, making it less marketable. Also, Azeri gas deposits in the Caspian Sea are not coming on line as fast as previously hoped.
The TAP line will have the capacity to deliver about 20 billion cubic meters of gas a year, but it will only run at half that volume, an amount that equals about 2% of Europe’s current gas consumption of roughly 500 billion cubic meters a year. The prospect of increasing that volume significantly for now is unlikely because of doubts about expanding Azeri production and the unlikelihood of accessing Turkmenistan’s gas fields.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to expect it can be expanded soon because I don’t think Azerbaijan has the gas to spare. And I don’t think it’s practical and realistic to think there’s going to be a great big volume of Turkmen gas to go into it,” said Simon Pirani, a gas expert and researcher at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
He said the EU’s initial hope for the Southern Gas Corridor was to tap into Turkmenistan’s gas reserves, but the cost and geopolitical difficulties of building a pipeline across the Caspian derailed that ambition. In the meantime, China built a massive pipeline to Turkmenistan and is now buying substantial volumes of Turkmen gas.
“Basically, China has got there first; they’ve made the sums work, the gas is going to China, and there’s no reason to think it’s going to come to Europe,” Pirani said. He added that Europe’s aim to tap into Turkmen gas was “a piece of incredible optimism.”
Otherwise, he said it looks doubtful that gas from Iran will be available due to international sanctions. Paradoxically, Russian gas could end up in the Southern Gas Corridor pipeline under certain conditions, one of which being that the pipeline’s capacity isn’t used up with Azeri gas, he said.
This questionable need for the pipeline is not lost on those who oppose its construction.
“We don’t need this pipeline,” said Andrea Fasiello, the owner of a restaurant and bar at Lido San Basilio, a quiet beach on the Adriatic Sea where the TAP pipeline comes ashore.
As a business owner here, Fasiello is naturally deeply opposed to the pipeline, which he said was plopped down at Lido San Basilio without any consideration for the locals and the environment.
“I thought they were crazy,” he said when he found out the pipeline was coming ashore right where he and his family had run a seaside restaurant for years. “An industrial project should be done in an industrial area.”
Lido San Basilio is far from an industrial zone. The closest town is a sleepy place that picks up during the summer months with beachgoers. Otherwise, the landscape is covered in olive orchards and farms.
“They’ve done a mess,” he said about the construction.
Pointing out to the sea where markers indicate where the pipeline lies under the waves, he said that locals discovered during the building that the pipeline was going through a coral reef.
“You’re not supposed to touch corals, but they built it nonetheless,” he said. “In Italy, when there are big projects, they close an eye.”
The pipeline has been controversial from the beginning and it sparked years of protests, some of them fierce as demonstrators tried to stop the pipeline from carving a line through the area’s olive orchards, most of which are now struggling to survive an imported Central American plant disease called Xylella fastidiosa. The combination of the pipeline and dying trees is a double whammy for many people here who see their landscape under assault by sinister forces driven by globalization.
The protests against the pipeline have fallen off, but a tense atmosphere hangs over the worksite with private security guards and police patrolling its premises. When Courthouse News showed up to take photographs of the worksite along a small public country road, TAP’s security guards notified a squad of carabinieri, Italy’s military police, and they submitted its reporter to a lengthy background check and questioning.
The protesters, it turns out, were justified to worry about the pipeline’s environmental damage.
“They always denied the (environmental) impacts and then in reality as the construction started they occurred,” said Elena Gerebizza, an energy campaigner with Re:Common, an Italian environmental group.
In September, TAP officials are scheduled to go on trial for a number of environmental violations, including allegations of polluting groundwater, damaging corals and not doing environmental assessment studies.
“The damage to the environment, to tourism, to fishing are enormous,” said Alfredo Fasiello, who helps run the restaurant at Lido San Basilio with his son Andrea.
After he discovered plans for the pipeline around 2010, Alfredo Fasiello said he helped form a citizens group, the Comitato No Tap, to fight the project in court, organize protests and stir up political will against it. Mayors in the area and many of the region’s political leaders are opposed to the pipeline.
“TAP has destroyed a noble environment,” he said.
He alleged the pipeline wasn’t about furnishing Europe with a more secure gas supply but rather about corrupt business deals.
“This is all about business,” he said. “There are 45 billion euros that go into the system of bribes and business. What value does the gas have? Zero. We absolutely have no need for this gas.”
He said Italy has a surplus of gas and that power plants around the country are moving away from natural gas. He believes the pipeline is really about helping the big fossil fuel companies that want to continue drilling, fracking, and producing oil and gas. In return, he said, the Italian state gets much coveted taxes from these companies.
Gerebizza said she hopes the upcoming trial over TAP’s environmental harm will spur a moment of self-reflection among Europe’s political leaders and financiers.
“On one side, the European Commission was the big sponsor of this project, but there were also public and private (financiers) that got involved in this project to the point of covering 2/3 of total investment costs,” she said. “This trial should be an occasion for the public financiers, in particular the European Investment Bank, to do some self-evaluation on the real impact of this project.”
She said the EIB and private banks have until now done a poor job of analyzing whether their funds are going to projects that are environmentally and socially acceptable.
“Maybe they should have done some evaluations themselves, seeing how controversial this project is,” she said. “So, it is a question of how public resources are spent in the future.”
With global warming becoming such a grave problem, major financial institutions have vowed to cut off funding for fossil fuels. The EIB has promised to phase out fossil fuel projects from its portfolio by 2021.
But Anna Roggenbuck, an EIB expert at the financial watchdog Bankwatch, said the bank’s vows to limit its involvement in fossil fuel projects includes loopholes that would allow the EU bank to continue funding gas power plants and work involving gas and oil transportation and distribution.
Also, the EU investment bank has not taken steps to stop financing companies unless they start taking steps to de-carbonize, she said. For example, the bank has no plans to stop providing loans to the Polish power company PGE, even though much of the electricity it sells is generated through coal-powered plants and it is moving ahead with plans to build new coal-powered facilities, she said.
“In my view the EIB would take stronger steps to stop funding gas projects but its shareholders do not allow it,” Roggenbuck said. Among the EIB’s shareholders are EU member states, and Roggenbuck said some EU nations want to protect national companies that rely on fossil fuels.
Back in Puglia, Luciano Carrozzo walks his two dogs where the pipeline is being constructed near a forest he has enjoyed since his childhood. The 30-year-old recently returned from travels abroad to his native Salento, as the region where the TAP pipeline crosses is called. Saddened by the environmental insults to his homeland, Carrozzo attributes the problems to the pipeline.
“I grew up here in these woods and I was always having to walk the dogs,” he said, speaking in English. “It’s very sad to see that the woods are, like, gone.”
Carrozzo blames the pipeline for setting in motion new road construction and, like so many in Puglia, sees an insidious, even criminal, connection between the olive tree disease devastating Puglia and the pipeline. For years, conspiracy theories have circulated in Puglia alleging the Xylella fastidiosa disease was spread intentionally as part of a scheme to facilitate the pipeline construction. Italian prosecutors have even undertaken a probe into the origins of the disease.
“The Xylella arrived together with the big project of TAP, so like many, all kinds of people here in Salento are more or less of the same opinion that like it’s too much of a coincidence,” he said.
“It’s all about money, that’s what I’m sure about.”
For so many locals like him, a pipeline connecting Italy, a country with a history of corruption, with an authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan reeks of dirty business deals.
“It’s all about corruption,” he said. “It’s all involved in the business. It’s not necessary. They’re just doing it for exchanging favors among influential people.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.