Italian olive grove stands in way of European energy security

Tue Oct 4, 2016 3:35am EDT
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By Giancarlo Navach and Stephen Jewkes

MELENDUGNO, Italy (Reuters) - In the name of European energy security, a private guard wearing a navy blue uniform, aviator sunglasses and a baseball cap walks around a grove of olive trees in southern Italy.

The 231 trees, surrounded by dry-stone walls on a dusty plain near the Adriatic coast, stand in the way of a $45 billion pipeline designed to bring gas from central Asia and help wean the European Union off its dependence on Russian energy.

Local authorities want the pipeline re-routed away from the prized grove, which includes trees thought to be more than 400 years old, but developers have Rome's approval to proceed, on condition they are transplanted while pipes are laid and buried.

Wary of protests, the pipeline consortium, which includes Britain's BP (BP.L: Quote), Azeri state energy company SOCAR and Italian gas company Snam (SRG.MI: Quote), has hired 24-hour security.

In reality, work on the Italian side of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) cannot proceed without local consent, threatening to delay a project that is meant within four years to carry the equivalent of 10 percent of Europe's Russian energy imports.

The olive grove, whose oldest trees are recognized as part of the world heritage by UNESCO, represents more than a weak link in European energy security.

It also highlights an issue at the heart of Italy's biggest constitutional reform debate in a decade: the power of local authorities to thwart Rome. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi proposes to dilute that power in a Dec. 4 referendum.

"None of the regions are happy with this reform because they fear they will be weaker in the face of the central government and will have to suffer things they don't understand, like TAP," said Michele Emiliano, the regional governor of Puglia, Italy's biggest olive oil producer and a popular tourist spot.   Continued...

A site for the construction of a pipeline is seen in a grove of century-old olive trees in the southern Italian village of Melendugno, near Lecce, September 23, 2016. REUTERS/Giancarlo Navach