Hydrogen idea, false neo-colonial solution

Italy as gas hub, but also as hydrogen hub. This is as much as we know of the much vaunted Mattei Plan, one of the pillars of the Meloni government’s foreign policy. Presented during the Italy-Africa conference held in Rome at the end of January, the Plan is, for now, a barely sketched out framework, in which a few development projects are included, roundabouts are carried out with already allocated funds and energy production projects are hinted at. Among these is the SouthH2Corridor: a mammoth infrastructure, a 3,300-kilometre-long pipeline that would run from North Africa all the way to Germany, passing through Italy. Most of the hydrogen would be produced in Tunisia.

The Italian section is named Italian Hydrogen Backbone and will indeed be the backbone of quite an ambitious project. It should be made of about 70 percent existing, retrofitted pipelines. In other words, gas pipelines adapted for the transport of a certain percentage of hydrogen. An operation estimated at EUR 4 billion, much of which could be covered by state aid. The European Commission has in fact given the green light to the request of seven governments, including Italy, Germany and Slovakia, to subsidise hydrogen transport and production projects to the tune of EUR 6.9 billion. These resources will come from the public coffers of each government and will therefore have to be subtracted from other public budget lines.

The European Commission has also included the SouthH2Corridor in the new list of Projects of Common and Mutual Interest: this will ensure that simplified procedures can be applied for its construction and that proponents can access public funding from the Connecting Europe Facility, as well as from financial institutions such as the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the latter only for the North African component). The corporations promoting the corridor include leading German and Austrian gas companies, and Italian gas transport corporation Snam (30% of shares held by the Italian state). Snam is among the corporations that for years have been lobbying the European institutions to ask for economic and political support for the creation of a hydrogen market. It is also one of the main promoters of the European Hydrogen Backbone, the macro-infrastructure project of the European gas corporations that underpins it.

If the project were to see the light of day, say the various gas transport multinationals, up to 40 per cent of RePower EU’s hydrogen import targets could be met, calculated at 20 million tonnes per year by 2030, 10 million of which from outside the EU.

The SouthH2Corridor would be the first of five European corridors, costing between EUR 80 and 130 billion. In short, hydrogen is the new business sniffed out by fossil multinationals, including Italian Snam, to ensure the long life of fossil infrastructures which, thanks to the hydrogen narrative, seem a little greener, but in reality do nothing more than perpetuate the dear old extractive model. But how much hydrogen is actually produced today on a global scale? According to the International Energy Agency, very little: 95 million tonnes in 2022, of which 0.087 million tonnes were produced by electrolysis, a paltry 0.1 per cent, which also includes the share from nuclear power. That makes the percentage of green hydrogen even below 0.1 per cent. As if to say that the growth of green hydrogen underpinning the Southern Corridor must all be verified.

Finally there are important question marks over how green hydrogen would be produced. 500 African civil society organisations already branded it as a ‘false solution’. In a joint statement they denounced that it ‘does nothing for the 600 million Africans who have no access to energy. Instead it turns our renewable energy into an export commodity, which thus ends up abroad. This is a neo-colonial extraction of African energy and water resources. Renewable energy must be prioritised for domestic use, not for foreign markets. The desalination of seawater for green hydrogen production is also harmful to our marine ecosystem. Green hydrogen for low-value production in Africa generates structural economic pitfalls that we must overcome’.

African civil society thus points out the critical aspects of a project that, in addition to land grabbing (thousands of hectares are needed for renewable energy installations and electrolysers), presents as a critical element precisely that of the use of water resources, which are certainly not abundant in North Africa, so much so that they would have to be drawn copiously – and damagingly – from the sea.

To obtain 9 litres of ultra-pure water, needed to produce one kilogram of hydrogen, at least 13 litres of fresh water are needed, and up to 20 litres of sea water to be desalinated. In largely desert and semi-desert countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, the construction of desalination plants dedicated to the production of hydrogen risks exacerbating social instability on such a sensitive issue as access to water and the management of water resources. This is a neo-colonial approach in which Italian and European policy encourages a ‘serving European needs’ vision, which makes the use of water for energy production prevail over the basic needs of the local population and the protection of a fragile natural environment, which thus becomes an area of sacrifice. A short-circuit in stark contrast to the rhetoric of aid and support for Africa so dear to the Italian prime minister. A thick cover of  ‘developmentalism’  to favour the interests of corporations like Snam, that may melt like snow in the sun once we know more about the Mattei Plan.

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