Ravenna is the test case for Italy’s energy future

Marina Forti, Internazionale

13 April 2021

A road separates Ravenna’s industrial area, in North West Italy, from the “pialassa”, the Romagna lagoon where fresh and brackish water mix. The petrochemical plant and the flamingos sit side by side; opposite the Adriatic Sea with its gas extraction platforms. And today this scene – the petrochemical plant, the lagoon, the offshore wells – is at the centre of a battle that goes far beyond Romagna town: at stake is how Italy will produce and consume energy in the decades to come. In concrete terms, how to spend the money earmarked for the country’s post-pandemic recovery.

At the heart of this battle is a complicated term: ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’, abbreviated to CCS. It is a system for capturing the fumes emitted by industrial plants, separating carbon dioxide from other gases, channeling it to a collection plant and then injecting it into the depleted hydrocarbon fields off the Adriatic coast. This project is proposed by Eni, which describes it in futuristic terms: a solution for trapping one of the main ‘greenhouse’ gases responsible for climate change and preventing it from accumulating in the atmosphere.

photo © Marina Forti

The intentions of the Italian multinational is to make the Ravenna plant the largest of its kind in Europe, and a “hub” for southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Eni says it will cost around two billion euros, and it is seeking public funding to build it. This is why the project is a candidate for the European Innovation Fund and, perhaps more importantly, for the national recovery and resilience plan, often referred to as the Recovery Fund: around 209 billion euro, 37 per cent of which will be earmarked for the “ecological transition” to fight climate change.

A city divided
But is CCS really the way to fight climate change? Many disagree. Uncertain and expensive technology, the idea of “capturing and storing” carbon dioxide is a false solution, argues an appeal launched last December by a broad array of experts and environmental associations in Emilia-Romagna. They say that “developing CCS means investing billions of euros in public funds” that would be better used for “a radical change in our country’s energy policies”.

Eni’s project was announced with great fanfare in June 2020 by the then Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Subsequently, the carbon capture and storage plant in Ravenna appeared and disappeared from various drafts of the national recovery and resilience plan. The version dated 29 December 2020 allocated funding of €1.35 billion to the project, which caused much controversy; the draft circulated in January does not mention it explicitly. However, the project remains on the table, perhaps only in a more discreet way. Eni, which recently got the contract to build a similar plant in Liverpool Bay, UK, is certainly still betting on the Ravenna project.

Ravenna is divided. What should we entrust the relaunch of the city and its economic activities on? To understand expectations and criticisms, we travelled to the city of Ravenna. And the first stop is inevitable: the industrial zone that rises between the city and the Adriatic coast, alongside a canal that serves as a port.

Fuel depots, soya oil tanks, the power station, LPG tanks for ships follow one after another.

“Here, everything that Eni proposes is accepted without complaint”, says a talkative Lorenzo Mancini, from the regional secretariat of Legambiente, who is accompanying me as we survey the area. “In the history of the industrial development of this city, Eni has always been the boss”, he continues. Ravenna’s recent history does indeed revolve around hydrocarbons, and the urban geography bears witness to this. To leave the city we take Via Enrico Mattei, named after the entrepreneur – a partisan in the Second World War fighting against nazi-fascist occupation. After the war he reorganized Italian oil compay Agip and in 1953 founded Eni, the national hydrocarbons company, making it a company of worldwide stature.

We pass the Anic Village (named after the first chemical company of the Eni group), built in the 1960s to house the workers and managers of the petrochemical complex, then in full expansion.

Then we take Via della Chimica and finally Via Baiona, and proceed between the factories on one side and the pine forest and the pialassa on the other. The old Enichem petrochemical plant remains largely active, although it has been fragmented into various companies with different ownerships. Versalis (Eni group), which produces elastomers, i.e. artificial rubber; the Marcegaglia plant, which processes steel; and Alma Petroli. Then there are fuel depots, Bunge’s soya oil tanks, Enel’s Teodora power station (powered by gas). Then the brand new liquefied natural gas tanks of the Italian-Rumanian Petrolifera company (which will be used to power ships, replacing fuel oils).

Gas energy and the wind one

In the 1950s, when Mattei’s Agip discovered a natural gas field off the coast of Romagna, methane seemed to be the “clean” energy of the future, far less polluting than oil or coal. Today, the mayor of Ravenna, Michele De Pascale, argues that this is where we need to start: “Thanks to those deposits, the city has developed an important technological capacity in the energy industry, first with Eni and then with the companies that build off-shore platforms and offshore plants, which are now recognised and work all over the world”. Of course, “today we cannot say that methane is a clean (energy) source, it is still one of the fossil fuels that alter the climate”, acknowledges the mayor (whom I interviewed by video call on 11 February). But it remains a necessary source to ensure the “ecological transition”, De Pascale argues, because while we wait to switch completely to renewable sources, natural gas is still preferable to oil or coal: “And as long as we use it, it’s better to extract it from our fields rather than import it”.

The mayor of Ravenna is in favour of the carbon dioxide ‘capture and storage’ plant proposed by Eni, as well as the idea of producing hydrogen from methane: “This too is useful for the transition”, he says. Some time ago he went so far as to say that “the city is unanimous” in favour of the CCS; now he acknowledges that there is opposition to the project. But he points out that “the city of Ravenna has two projects for the future: one is Eni’s, and the other is a large offshore wind farm”.

The mayor is referring to the project called Agnes, which revolves around the energy of the wind and the sun: renewable resources. Formally unveiled on 18 February, it will consist of two sets of large turbines planted in the seabed to produce electricity using the power of the wind, eight and twelve miles off the coast respectively, plus a floating solar energy plant. The whole project will be capable of producing 620 megawatts of energy. It will also include a platform to transform seawater into hydrogen (water and solar energy: hence ‘green’ hydrogen).

The project is led by the Qint’x group, a Ravenna-based company specialising in photovoltaic and wind power plants, which recently entered into a consortium with Saipem, an engineering and infrastructure company for the oil industry. The expected cost is around one billion euros. “It is an innovative project, we have designed wind turbines specially adapted to exploit the low wind speed of the Adriatic”, explains Alberto Bernabini, Agnes’ designer. “In addition, it will be the first floating photovoltaic plant in the Mediterranean, and the first pole combining different renewable sources”.

The “capture and storage” plant would instead be built in the Porto Corsini area, on the edge of the petrochemical plant, separated from Marina di Ravenna by the industrial port canal. According to Eni, the plant would use infrastructure and plants already existing on land; the compressed carbon dioxide would then be injected into the underwater reservoir called Porto Corsini Mare Ovest, which is currently close to depletion. Eni estimates that the off-shore fields in the Ravenna area can store a total of between 300 and 500 million tonnes of compressed carbon dioxide. Company sources say that in the first ‘pilot’ phase the plant could collect emissions from the Versalis plant and the Casal Borsetti gas-fired power station, a little further north on the coast and owned by Eni; later it could become an ‘open platform’ and collect emissions from other companies and power stations in the region.

Mayor De Pascale sums up: “The wind farm represents the post-transition future. But the capture and storage centre is useful for the energy transition because it can clean up emissions from dirty but still necessary industries such as rubber, steel or cement”.

But what does ‘transition’ mean?
“How many years have we been hearing about energy transition?” puffs Mauro Savorani, formerly an electrical engineer and since his retirement a volunteer ecological guard and environmental activist. With Lorenzo Mancini, he guides us through the factories, the pine forest and the pialassa; he talks about poaching by clam fishermen, and old ships abandoned to contaminate the lagoon.

Thirty or forty years ago you could say that methane is good for the transition”, insists Savorani, “but now it doesn’t make sense”. Those of his generation remember that years ago the city of Ravenna was divided over the proposal for a new coal-fired power plant. In the face of widespread opposition and the nascent environmental movement, the government finally opted for a methane-fuelled, less polluting power plant.

“It was 1983: at that time gas was actually the transition, because renewable energies were still underdeveloped”, recalls Giuseppe Tadolini, who coordinates the Campaign for the Climate, Out of Fossil Fuels, a network of environmental associations and movements in Ravenna: “But then the technologies advanced. Today we already have a significant production of photovoltaic energy, wind turbines are a viable alternative, there are accumulators to fully exploit renewable sources. We need to invest in this”.

“It is illogical to continue using fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide and then spending money and energy to capture it, when we now have the technology not to produce it at all”, points out Vincenzo Balzani, a chemist, professor emeritus at the University of Bologna and member of the Accademia dei Lincei. “Capture and storage is a technology that in turn consumes a lot of energy”, he explains. Then you have to consider the risks: “We don’t know what will happen if we inject compressed carbon dioxide in seismic areas such as the Italian peninsula, and with strong subsidence such as the coast of Ravenna”. Subsidence, is the lowering of the soil and seabed caused by both natural phenomena and human activities: Ravenna has been living with it for centuries, but there are well-founded suspicions that gas extraction has aggravated the phenomenon.

In short, ‘capture and storage’ is an uncertain and costly undertaking, insists Balzani, “while the main renewable sources now produce energy at competitive costs”. It depends a lot on which economic strategy you want to pursue, adds Alberto Bellini, professor at the University of Bologna and spokesman for the Energy for Italy research group (of which Balzani is president). He notes that Norway will finance the construction of a capture and storage plant to limit the impact of a cement factory and an incinerator, but because it is an expensive undertaking it will be financed by the carbon tax. While in the United States, in Texas, a similar plant attached to a coal-fired power plant closed because it was too expensive. In short: “Capture and storage is not the right place to start to achieve an energy transition”.

The Agnes project, with its wind turbines and floating photovoltaics, could come into operation in 2023 if the necessary permits are granted. “The procedure is supposed to take three years, but it often takes longer. The reality is that in Italy more than twenty offshore renewable energy projects have been submitted so far, and only one has been authorised after a nine-year procedure”, says Alberto Bernabini. “Our project is innovative and we have been contacted by other countries interested in implementing it. It would be a paradox if we did not manage to start it here. In a few years’ time, others will be doing the same and we risk being left behind”. Instead, “for the capture and storage project there is a fast-track procedure. I wonder why renewables are penalised”.

Simplified procedures

In fact, an amendment to the ‘simplification decree’ approved in September 2020 at the suggestion of senator Stefano Colla, from Romagna, states that ‘pending the identification of sites’ for the storage of carbon dioxide … ‘depleted hydrocarbon deposits’ in territorial waters are to be considered provisionally suitable. This is exactly the case for the CCS in Ravenna.

Eni has not yet launched a formal request for authorisation for its carbon capture and storage plant in Ravenna: “It is working on the preparation of the authorisation application,” says the press office. It is clear, however, that the project depends on adequate public funding. Eni’s main activity remains the extraction of gas and oil. It is the priority for its investments and the main source of its approximately €70 billion annual turnover.

The Italian multinational plans to increase oil and gas extraction until 2025, then gradually decrease oil in favour of gas, for which it has concessions in some of the most important fields in Africa and the Middle East. However, Eni too, like many large energy companies, has reformulated its strategy and is committed to achieving “zero carbon dioxide emissions” by 2050. This is why it is also investing in renewable energy and pushing for ‘capture and storage’ projects. Or the production of hydrogen, which some see as a fuel of the future: it depends on whether it is produced from methane or water.

Many are convinced that the main objective of the CCS project in Ravenna is to produce ‘blue’ hydrogen. In a nutshell: Eni aims to produce hydrogen by transforming methane gas, a process that consumes a lot of energy and causes carbon emissions – which could be ‘captured’ and put underground. The company also envisages reusing the captured carbon dioxide (so the project would become ‘Carbon Capture, Storage and Use’, CCSU); however, details on the safety and economic sustainability of the project are unclear, even before environmental sustainability. In fact, Eni does not provide an estimate for the cost per tonne of carbon dioxide stored.

Whether and to what extent European programmes will finance ‘blue’ hydrogen as part of the energy transition is an open question. A lobby of gas and energy companies, registered under the name Hydrogen Europe, is pushing for this. Indeed, “the European hydrogen strategy launched by the European Commission in July 2020 is very close to the lobby’s demands”, notes a report by the Italian organisation Re:Common. According to Alessandro Runci, form Re:Common, “it is unacceptable that public resources are allocated to useless and harmful projects” such as carbon capture and storage. “The Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) project is used by ENI to give the appearance of transition, while it continues to focus on oil and gas fields”.

How to spend recovery money
So we come back to the question: is this the best way to invest the money from the recovery and resilience plan? “Why should we invest two billion of public money in such a project?” asks Lorenzo Mancini.

Back in the centre of Ravenna, I put the question to Alessio Vacchi, secretary of the CGIL Federation of Chemical and Energy Workers (Filctem). “We are in favour of the carbon dioxide capture and storage project”, he replies, “because we need investment and because Eni’s project goes in the right direction: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage energy transition”. In his office at the Chamber of Labour, Vacchi is concerned: “Ravenna is a centre of excellence for off-shore technologies. But our specialised workers are going to work abroad because our mining activities have come to a standstill. Without adequate investment we will lose this wealth of professionalism”.

From his point of view, it was a great disappointment to discover that the latest draft of the national recovery and resilience plan does not explicitly mention Eni’s Ravenna project: “You cannot announce a project with such emphasis and then make it disappear. The country needs a serious industrial policy, based on dialogue between politicians, technicians and civil society groups: not fake announcements”. According to Vacchi, the opposition to Eni’s project is “ideological”. “We need to eliminate gases that are harmful to the climate, but in the transition we need different fuels, and methane remains the leading one”. The trade union leader noted that the energy industry in the Ravenna area employs about six thousand people, both directly and indirectly, but continues to lose jobs: “The capture and storage project would make it possible to save current employment”.

How many jobs a ‘capture and storage’ project guarantees, however, is difficult to say. “We know that employment intensity in renewable energies is high”, notes Alberto Bellini, “whereas the prospects offered by a CCS are unclear”.

Investment and jobs are no small matter, even in a wealthy and active region like Emilia-Romagna. “We have an economic system that was grinding to a halt even before the pandemic”, observes Marinella Melandri, secretary of the CGIL in Ravenna, where I met her in February. “We hope that the Recovery and Resilience Plan will be an opportunity to reconvert the economy in an environmentally sustainable way”. The CGIL shares the objective of reducing climate-altering gases, Melandri explains, but “a just transition must take into account the economic and social effects”, and therefore safeguard jobs.

The union recently signed a regional pact for employment and the environment, with other civil society groups, and here it initiated a dialogue with the other signatories, including Legambiente. The union leader is cautious. “Chemistry and energy have played a major role in this city. The presence of Eni has contributed to creating great professionalism. Now fossil fuels are destined to be phased out, even if methane can still play a role in the transition”.

A past that never goes away
CGIL is open to dialogue. However, Marinella Melandri has no opinion on the new plant proposed by Eni: ‘It has not yet been adequately investigated,’ she says: ‘There is talk of it, but we have not yet had any institutional discussions. She fears that the debate will end up being “politically polarised” not least in view of next autumn’s local elections.

A rare opportunity for discussion between the various parties involved was a public meeting on the “ecological transition in Ravenna”, organised by a number of environmental organisations: with scientists, technicians, representatives of the off-shore industry in Ravenna and the Agnes project, leaders of the CGIL and local authorities. “We had also invited Eni, but they declined”, says Viviana Manganaro, spokesperson for the Emilia-Romagna Network for Climate and Environmental Emergency, which coordinated the event: “Our aim was to highlight all aspects of the capture and storage project so that citizens can form an informed opinion”.

“We are at a crossroads on which our future depends”, says Lorenzo Mancini. There are too many risks and uncertainties surrounding the capture and storage project. A real ecological transition means investing from now on in renewable energies, for example using our industrial capacities for off-shore wind power. Instead we see focusing on blue hydrogen, then on gas. It’s a past that never goes away”.

One February afternoon, a group of young people reached a central square in Ravenna. They unloaded a loudspeaker and hand-written signs from a bicycle trailer and spread them on the pavement: they said “No to ENI’s CCS”, “the future is not stored”. Two girls took turns on the microphone, addressing passers-by: “Financing the Eni project means cutting off funds for renewable energy”.

Anna Fedriga, a first-year student at the Faculty of Philosophy in Bologna, is one of the organisers of the Ravenna group of Fridays for Future, the movement inspired by Greta Thunberg – the Swedish activist; the first ‘climate strikes’ in Ravenna had filled the historic centre before the pandemic. This movement of young people is courted by political leaders and rulers all over the world, and the city of Ravenna is no exception. “They invite us to testify, all happy to have their picture taken with us. Maybe they finance water bottles for schools, which costs nothing. But when it comes to deciding what matters, they don’t listen to us anymore”. For Anna Fedriga, ‘the petrochemical and gas industries are the past that continues to loom over this city. We want to think about the future”. Their voices must also be heard.

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