by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, June 7 (Xinhua) -- The future of the ambitious Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which aims to give western Europe access to natural gas from Azerbaijan's massive Shah Deniz fields, may be in doubt after leading officials in the new Italian government said the project made no sense for Italy.
Sergio Costa, who was installed as Italian environment minister under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte less than a week ago, promised to launch a study into whether Italy will benefit from continuing to participate in the so-called TAP project. And Minister of the South Barbara Lezzi expressed worry about environmental risks associated with TAP.
The 4.5-billion-euro (5.4-billion-U.S. dollar) TAP project spans 880 kilometers (550 miles) from the border between Turkey and Greece, across Greece into Albania, under the Adriatic Sea, and into San Foca in the southern Italian region of Apulia. From there, it will link with existing gas infrastructure to reach multiple western European markets.
But Costa said that given Italy's "energy policies and a falling demand for natural gas, the project today looks pointless." He said Italy's role with TAP was "on the table" for discussion, and that the government would prioritize debate on the topic within the Council of Ministers.
Any change in plans on TAP would have a wide impact. Work on the project is advanced, and the Italian section of the project is expected to be completed within two years.
The TAP was launched in 2007, and Italy signed an intergovernmental agreement with Greece and Albania in 2013. Italy completed its environmental assessment of the project in 2014.
Changes would also have a dramatic impact on members of the TAP consortium, which include Rome-based Snam Rete Gas, which bought a 20-percent stake in the TAP project in 2015.
Opposition to the TAP is coming mostly from the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, the largest of the two parties backing Conte, and which has environmental conservation written into its manifesto. Costa and Lezzi are both members of the Five-Star Movement.
Lezzi -- who grew up in the Apulian city of Lecce, which is only 25 kilometers (15 miles) from San Foca, where the pipeline is set end -- has said the environmental risks the TAP represented were unnecessary given the country's excess gas capacity.
Demand for natural gas in Italy is below its peak of ten years ago. "It makes no sense to bring more gas to Italy when we already have enough and we are trying to phase out fossil fuels," Lezzi told journalists.
The Five-Star Movement has said it wants to phase out fossil fuel use in Italy by 2050.
Mariagrazia Midulla, head of climate and energy policy for WWF-Italia, an environmental advocacy group, told Xinhua the focus on phasing out fossil fuels and incentivizing renewable energy use was welcome.
"The idea that Italy will become a natural gas hub for Europe was probably a fantasy, and it is true Italy needs to incentive renewable energy," said Midulla, who added WWF was conducting an investigation of Italy's long-term gas needs.
But Pietro Paganini, founder of the think tank Competere, said it is probably too late to pull the plug on the TAP, echoing the views of the project's consortium, which has said that redirecting the TAP around Italy is impossible without scrapping the project entirely and that even changing the landing point within Italy could cause several years of delay.
"This is a major infrastructure project that will create jobs and is seen as having minimal environmental impacts while diversifying the energy supply," Paganini said in an interview. "A great deal of money has already been invested. It might have made sense to debate things several years ago, but it would be ridiculous to change the plan at this point."