MELENDUGNO, Italy (CN) — For more than a year protesters have sought to stop work on a European-financed natural gas line coming all the way from Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea to the land of olive trees and beaches in southern Italy.
Protesters have sought to block the removal of olive trees; they’ve blocked roads to stop work trucks and faced off with riot police; they’ve held marches, disrupted meetings and pushed their cause on the internet.
Opponents of the gas line — including local politicians — say it will harm the environment, further addict Europe to dirty fossil fuels and help support the authoritarian regime of Azerbaijan.
Now they may have their best chance yet to stop the work: Italy’s new government.
In early June a maverick anti-establishment and pro-environmental party known as the 5-Star Movement took control of Italy’s government in a power-sharing coalition with the right-wing, anti-immigrant, pro-industry party known as the League.
In its sudden rise to power in less than a decade from its founding, the 5-Star Movement has made cleaning up the environment and renewable energy its cornerstones. Among its many pledges, its leaders have spoken out against the gas line.
Shortly after taking office, Italy’s newly appointed minister of the environment, Sergio Costa, a Carabinieri general and lead investigator into toxic dumping by “ecomafia” near Naples, said in an interview with Reuters that the line appeared to be pointless, in part because Italy’s gas consumption is falling. He said the project would be re-evaluated. The ministry did not immediately respond to a query from Courthouse News.
“We trust the 5-Star Movement will do what it said it would do now that it’s in power,” said Marco Potì, the mayor of Melendugno, a town of 10,000 on the heel of the Italian Peninsula.
“Gas lines like this tie our hands and feet to countries where there is little democracy,” said the mayor, an outspoken critic of the project.
But opponents to the gas line face powerful interests. The line into Italy is known as the Trans Adriatic Pipeline because it is to cross the Adriatic Sea from Albania and land at a tourist beach near Melendugno, in the province of Lecce.
The segment into Italy is the final leg of a $40 billion project called the Southern Gas Corridor, designed to bring gas from the Shah Deniz reservoir in the Caspian Sea to Europe. The 2,170-mile pipeline crosses Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece and Albania. It is part of Europe’s strategy to decrease its reliance on Russian gas and tap new markets. Europe relies heavily on imports.
To that end, in February the European Investment Bank approved a $1.8 billion loan to finance it. And on Wednesday, the board of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development voted to provide a $615 million loan for the project.
In all, these two public banks and the World Bank have provided $8.2 billion in loans to develop the Southern Gas Corridor, according to the BankWatch Network, a European watchdog group that monitors financial institutions.
BankWatch has been critical of public financing for a project it deems as violating the wishes of communities and the banks’ own social and environmental principles.
Other investors in the pipeline include BP, the worldwide oil and gas giant; SNAM, an Italian natural gas company; Fluxys, a Belgium gas company; SOCAR, an Azerbaijani gas company; and Enagás, a Spanish gas company.
Despite the new Italian environmental minister’s comments, it is far from clear what will happen to the gas line as work continues to bring it to Italy and start delivering gas by 2020.
Lisa Givert, a spokeswoman for the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) consortium, said her group would not comment on “statements made by members of the government.”
In an email, she added that the TAP consortium “continues to engage positively with the Italian government and environmental and regulatory authorities.”
It’s also far from clear how serious the opposition of the 5-Star Movement is.
For example, Italy’s government representative on the board of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development voted Wednesday in favor of the new loan for the project, according to Elena Gerebizza, a researcher at Re:Common, an Italian watchdog group.
“We want to see concrete steps being taken by the 5-Star Movement,” she said. “We are really questioning what the real position of the 5-Star Movement is.”
Her group, working with investigative reporters at the Italian magazine L’Espresso, analyzed the complex financial interests behind the pipeline. They say the project will enrich powerful, and corrupt, leaders and their circles of supporters and families in Azerbaijan and Turkey.
“It looks like there is a private interest and we cannot see the public benefit for it,” Gerebizza said.
Givert, the TAP spokeswoman, declined to comment on allegations that the pipeline supports an authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan with a dismal human rights record. She said the pipeline consortium is “committed to abiding by the highest ethical standards” and that it operates “with utmost respect for human rights.”
Carsten Hesse, an economist at the private bank Berenberg, said it appears that “a lot is happening behind the scenes” in negotiations over the pipeline. “The pipeline might play into the poker game” of interests, including those of Italy’s new government, Hesse said.
Many other factors play into the politics of the pipeline, Hesse said. For example, gas prices are low at the moment and Russia is moving ahead with an expansion of its pipelines through the Baltic Sea to Europe, the so-called Nord Stream 2 project.
Through the existing Nord Stream pipeline, Russia sends about 55 billion cubic meters of gas a year to Europe. At its most, the TAP line would provide 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year to begin.
“This is not a lot of gas,” Hesse said.
For now, at least, the tensions in the olive groves near Melendugno, where workers are clearing the land to make way for the pipeline, appear to be on summer break.
Potì, the mayor, said the pipeline consortium agreed to stop work while the tourist season is under way.
A Courthouse News reporter found the encampment of protesters outside the work area empty, except for many signs splashed with slogans against the pipeline. The corridor through the olive groves where the gas line is to be built was guarded by high fences, barbed wire and private security guards, but there was little sign of work going on.
It was mostly quiet, and the silence throbbed with the sound of insects.