(Bloomberg) -- On a recent visit to a construction site near an olive grove along the coast of southern Italy, a reporter’s phone buzzed with an ominous text message: “We know you’re there.”
The text came from one of the people fighting to stop the final construction of a 4.5 billion-euro ($5.2 billion) natural gas pipeline that’s designed to run right beneath the olive trees, an area farmed for centuries and now surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. They have been working in shifts, monitoring progress of a project meant to carry gas from the Caspian Sea and provide the cornerstone of a European Union plan to wean itself off Russian gas.
Now their yearslong fight to block the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, known as TAP, has been given a boost. The ministers in Italy’s new government have threatened to put the project under review, aligning more with the protesters than the companies working on the pipeline, including British oil giant BP Plc and Italy’s state-owned gas company, Snam SpA. The threats have thrown into question whether the final stretch will be ready by the planned 2020 deadline—or completed at all.
The companies that invested in TAP and the larger pipeline it connects with could face billions in losses if the project is delayed, said Elchin Mammadov, a utilities analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “There is a 90% probability that it will not be ready,” he said.
On Wednesday, the board of the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development gave the project a vote of confidence, approving a loan of up to 500 million euros and saying the initial annual capacity of 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas would be enough for 7 million European households.
What began as a squabble about olive groves has grown into a larger protest against globalization, a theme that courses through populist rhetoric.
“Our fight started to protect our land,” said Gianluca Maggiore, a member of the group that calls itself No TAP. “Now we are fighting against the system, against energy markets distortion, against speculation by multinational companies.”
The populist coalition now in power in Rome is made up of lawmakers from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and from the anti-immigrant League. Since coming to power on June 1, they have roused worries throughout the eurozone, on issues such as the common currency and migrant policy. Yet the new government’s energy policies may turn out to have the greatest impact.
Only the last five miles of the 500-mile-long pipeline—those under the olive trees—are in question. The project will bring gas from Azerbaijan, winding through Greece and Albania, under the Adriatic Sea and finally up into Italy, which imports more than 90 percent of its oil and gas. Gas is already flowing through some of the early portions, and TAP has been credited with helping the Greek economy last year.
The terminus will be near the seaside tourist town of San Foca, located in the Apulia region known for its crystal blue waters and beautiful olive trees, some of which are as wide as oaks and have been harvested for generations.
Those trees initially proved to be the most difficult obstacle of all.
Local associations and government officials are fighting TAP’s plans to uproot more than 1,600 of them, despite pledges to take painstaking care.
And several cabinet ministers in the new populist government have threatened to put the whole project under review, which environment minister Sergio Costa said will be a priority. Barbara Lezzi, the new minister for the southern regions and an outspoken TAP critic, said she hopes a special committee will review whether it’s possible to halt the project or change its route.
At ground zero of the protests, a makeshift campsite is manned 24-hours-a-day to keep a vigilant eye on developers. From a crude wooden shelter, they send text messages to people they recognize entering and leaving, to let them know they’re watching.
These are no amateurs. Italian local protest movements are known for blocking major projects. In northern Italy, protesters have managed to halt the TAV, a high speed rail line between Italy and France, for well over a decade. The No TAP movement has links with the No TAV: Some of the protesters from the north have traveled south to offer help — and vice versa.
One of the most vehement opponents in government is Lezzi, the new minister for the southern regions. She previously joined protests and called TAP “pointless” in a video posted last year. She described the construction as doing unprecedented harm to the local territory.
When asked if stopping the project remained a possibility, Lezzi’s spokesman said in an email: “That route is still possible.”
In April, three Five Star lawmakers issued a complaint against TAP, prompting a local prosecutor to seize one of the construction sites.
Further delays may curb the ability of some companies to make money off the production of gas from the Shah Deniz field on the Caspian Sea, one of the world’s largest offshore fields, Bloomberg Intelligence’s Mammadov and Rob Barnett wrote in a note to clients.
The TAP consortium has said it’s not possible to re-route away from Italy. Moving to another location within Italy could pose a serious delay of several years. The companies have tried to mediate, meticulously uprooting some of the olive trees and replanting them in other locations as they make room for the bulldozers and cranes, but locals aren’t satisfied.
“Sometimes people even refuse to sell us a sandwich,” project manager Gabriele Lanza said in an interview, explaining the animus the workers have felt in the local community. The companies now provide lunch on site.
TAP brought in Luca Schieppati from Snam last year as managing director to try to address local backlash. Putting the terminus at any other potential site would do more harm to the environment than San Foca, Schieppati said in a phone interview.
“Dialogue is hard with the most extreme groups that antagonize the project,” he said. “We are here to work with new ministers and governments keeping in mind that this is an international project that creates value for the country.”
Back at the campsite, volunteers continue to jot down the details of everyone and everything that enters or leaves the terminus site. They are determined to make things difficult for the workers to the end.
“We have already won our battle, we are slowing them down significantly,” Maggiore said while popping beers with fellow protesters. “I hope the new government will not only block the project, but completely overhaul the country’s energy plans.”
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