On April 6, Italy’s Lazio Regional Administrative Court (LRAC) suspended the environmental impact permit for the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which would have allowed for the relocation of olive trees that obstruct the planned path of the pipeline in the Puglia region town of Melendugno (Italianinsider.it, April 7). TAP, the culminating major link of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) now under construction, is initially expected to deliver 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Azerbaijani natural gas to Italy, via Greece, Albania and the Adriatic Sea.
TAP’s implementation was initially stalled in Melendugno when locals came out to protest the relocation of olive tree groves located within the construction area. Melendugno’s local communities had demanded to reroute the pipeline further north to pass through the city of Brindisi. But the Italian Council of State (a legal-administrative consultative body that ensures the legality of public administration) rejected the appeals of Puglia’s local authorities and approved the transplantation of the trees at the construction site in Meledugno (Tap-ag.com, March 27; EurActiv, March 29; Thegreatmiddleeast.com, March 28). Under the Italian constitution, the regions retain rights to the use of their lands for the construction of energy infrastructure. The December 2016 constitutional referendum was held to determine the division of legislative competences between the state and the regions on land-use, but it ultimately failed in favor of the regions (see EDM, December 16, 2016).
The TAP consortium has said it has complied with all the necessary regulations to safely relocate the olive trees, in cooperation with the relevant regional authorities. The trees were to be temporarily moved, specially cared for, and then replanted in their original location upon the completion of the pipeline’s construction. However, the April 6 LRAC ruling had blocked the preliminary transplantation works. After re-examining the request of Puglia’s authorities, on April 20 the court revoked its order to halt construction. TAP now has all its required authorizations, and the project designs have been completed; but the environmental authorizations have been delayed so long that they now single-handedly endanger the project’s successful realization. The construction has been postponed by a year already, and if the olive trees are not moved promptly, the process will be at a standstill again (Oliveoiltimes.com, April 11, March 10; Naturalgasworld.com, April 10; Tap-ag.com March 27; Reuters, March 7, April 20; EurActiv, October 4, 2016).
Vitaly Baylarbayov, the deputy vice president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), has asserted that TAP’s “environmental impact is minimal” because the pipeline will cross onto Italian soil through an underground offshore/onshore micro-tunnel, rendering the pipe invisible, and further stretch to the pipeline-receiving-terminal. The olive trees will be moved and replanted using special machines under the supervision of scientists, and all damages will be repaired and compensated. The land allocated for the micro-tunnel, which was temporarily legally acquired by the TAP consortium, will be returned to the local landowners once construction on the pipeline has finished. The consortium has also been engaging with local authorities and communities in Puglia to address their concerns over the project’s environmental footprint. Polls conducted within the communities living there indicate that more than 60 percent of local respondents support TAP and reject the arguments against its construction as groundless (EurActiv, October 4, 2016; Tap-ag.com, March 27).
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, meanwhile, has suggested that certain forces want to delay work on TAP and the SGC more broadly under the pretext of environmental concerns. Azerbaijan had previously faced similar stumbling blocks when certain groups, particularly the Armenian lobby, sought to attack the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, President Aliyev recalled. These efforts delayed the assistance to the BTC pipeline from international financial institutions, “but despite this, Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan was opened,” he pointed out (APA, April 11). Energy Minister Natig Aliyev echoed the president’s remarks (Naturalgasworld.com, April 10). In the 1990s, the BTC pipeline was opposed by major regional oil suppliers, and there were attempts to hinder the negotiations over the “Contract of Century” (as the agreement over the BTC is popularly known), which has allowed for the flow of Azerbaijani oil to global markets. The SGC, which is designed to ease Southeastern Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, appears to have come under similar negative pressure (Azeridaily.com, September 10, 2016; see EDM, March 24).
SOCAR Vice President Elshad Nassirov told Italian L’Espresso, in October 2014, that Azerbaijan’s modest, 10 bcm expansion of annual exports of gas to Europe is irritating certain third suppliers (alluding to Russia), despite their huge market share therein. Nasirov said that Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Italian anti-establishment Five-Star Movement party, was interviewed by a Russian newspaper and promised that he would do everything to decrease SOCAR’s market presence in Italy. Grillo had also earlier called for a referendum over TAP. Italy’s Lower House ratified the international agreement on the TAP project in December 2013; but during the vote, delegates of the more marginal rightist and leftist parties—Northern League, Brothers of Italy, Left Ecology Freedom and the Five-Star Movement—all opposed the ratification of the pipeline (L’Espresso, October 20, 2014; Reuters, December 21, 2014; Viniciopeluffo.it, December 6, 2013).
Earlier in 2014, then–secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was even more direct. He accused Russian intelligence agencies of carrying out sophisticated disinformation operations and actively working with environment-focused non-governmental organizations to oppose shale gas exploration in Europe. The security concern for the Alliance is that Moscow is obstructing alternative energy projects in order to maintain many European countries’ dependence on Russia as a single or most important hydrocarbon supplier, thus making it easier for Moscow to put economic and political pressure on them (Forsal.pl, June 20, 2014). Likewise, the SGC—of which TAP is a key part—aims to deliver non-Russian gas along a non-Russian transit route, which opens this strategic project up to attempts to derail it by its opponents.
Given Italy’s rising gas dependence on Russia and the declining import of Algerian and Libyan gas over the past several years, TAP will offer new opportunities for Italy in terms of security of supplies, diversification of sources, and increased competition. Caspian-basin gas delivered by TAP will make Italy less dependent on coal and ease its ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Azertag.az, April 8; Platts.com, April 7; The Telegraph, March 29). But the Italian government worries that a failure to legally secure TAP’s landfall point could push the consortium to reroute the Italian segment of this pipeline to the Western Balkans, via the planned Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline (Reuters, March 7).