Gas v olive trees: oil pipeline taken to court

A project to construct a major pipeline will be tried for alleged environmental crimes in Italy.

After a long investigation, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and 18 of its staff will stand trial on 8 May 2020. The parties are accused of a slew of environmental crimes.

Francesca Carlsson, Legal Officer in the European Environmental Bureau said: “This is an important test case that will determine whether Europe’s national legal systems will hold polluters fully to account and respect the rights of citizens and the environment.”

This trial comes at the end of the project that started in 2016, and that was contested by locals from the beginning. The construction taking place in the region of Puglia is the last phase of the pipeline that will join Azerbaijan to Italy and will supply Europe with gas from the Caspian Sea region.


Crime and punishment

The potential death of transplanted ancient olive trees (recognised as World Heritage by UNESCO), damage to Mediterranean scrub, the seepage of chemicals due to the absence of waterproofing in some zones of the project, and groundwater pollution, are some of the environmental crimes of which the parties are accused.

Puglia’s nature and coast attract large numbers of tourists each year, and locals fear that the construction work and damage done to the region would affect their revenues.

There have also been suspicions of irregularities in the administrative process, which now seem to have been dropped. There were questions as to whether the pipeline should have been submitted to the EU’s Seveso-Directive that aims at reducing disaster risks linked to hazardous chemicals.

Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that the construction of the pipeline went ahead without the appropriate permits. The newspaper explains that this is due to a ministerial decree that exempted the project.

However, under the EIA Directive, an Environmental Impact Assessment must be conducted on pipelines with a diameter of more than 800mm and a length of more than 40km. It would seem that TAP presented the pipeline as various individual sections, a misleading technique often used to avoid carrying out EIAs.

Among the injured parties is the Puglia region. Its governor, Michel Emiliano, said that they will ask for €1 billion in compensation, ANSA Italy reported, for the enormous damage he says was inflicted on the region.

Deck chairs on the Titanic

Despite these environmental issues and concerns, TAP received considerable funding from the EU, with the European Investment Bank providing it with its largest financing facility in 2018, worth €3.9 billion.

This continued investment in damaging gas infrastructures has been harshly criticised and opposed by environmental groups. In an open letter released in May 2019, a group of NGOs argued that “investing in continued gas use now does nothing more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.” 

“The investments we make today will define whether Europe can avoid the worst of the climate crisis while also creating a fairer energy system,”  said Jonathan Bonadio, the EEB’s Policy Officer for Renewables, Climate and Grids.

In recent months, the political situation has improved considerably with the arrival of new European Parliament and Commission. Late last year, the European Investment Bank committed to stop funding fossil fuel projects, though it left in a loophole for so-called “low-carbon gas”, and to become the world’s first “climate bank”.