Italy green-lights Malta gas pipeline despite uranium warning

€400m hydrogen-ready gas pipeline still subject of NGO complaint in Brussels over fossil-gas ‘VIP’ projects eligibility

Part of the Gela coastline where the Malta-Sicily pipeline will be passing from
Part of the Gela coastline where the Malta-Sicily pipeline will be passing from

The Italian government has issued its approval of the Melita Transgas pipeline that will connect Malta to Italy.

The decree was issued by ministers Roberto Cingola and Dario Franceschini, respectively ministers for ecological transition and culture, despite recent warnings from the Biviere Nature Reserve in Gela about the environmental threat posed by the gas pipeline.

A document by the Biviere managing authority recommended alternative routes, in view of the large number of impacts and high environmental costs, claiming that the route of the EU-funded gas pipeline was determined on the basis of solely economic criteria. Indeed, the proposed pipeline will not only pass through Natura 2000 sites and a bird and biodiversity area but will pass from the gulf of Gela, an area which already registers worrying levels of pollution, owing to concentrations of radioactive uranium 238 and thorium 234.

The European Commission said it will be contacting the Italian authorities to see whether a ‘verification’ is required with regards to the high levels of radioactivity in the seabed around Gela, where the EU-funded gas pipeline linking Italy to Malta is planned.

The concentration of the two radioactive elements which naturally occur on land, in the waters opposite the coast, suggests it was dispersed in the sea from landfills, making the site one of the “most problematic” in Italy. The report calls for the re-routing of the Malta-Sicily gas pipeline as this would add up to the environmental degradation of past industrial activity.

The issue was raised in a question to the Commission by Green MEP Ignazio Corrao, who asked whether the Commission will verify the presence and determine the origin of uranium and thorium in the waters around Gela.

Melita Transgas will have to comply with a list of environmental conditions set by the Italian government, but the Biviere reserve had also requested that compensation measures be put in place to mitigate the burden on the industrialised Gela environs.

NGOs complain with EC over gas

Around €200 million for Malta’s hydrogen-ready, gas pipeline to Italy will be funded by the EU, but four environment groups have also filed legal action against a list of “projects of common interest” (PCIs) for fossil gas projects.

ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth Europe, Food & Water Action Europe an CEE Bankwatch Network say the European Commission’s PCI list has given VIP status to “climate-destructive projects”.

The list of gas projects amounts to €13 billion, but the groups say the Commission has not calculated their output of carbon dioxide and methane.

Malta’s gas pipeline, rejected twice for funding due to a change in climate ambitions that were heading in favour of hydrogen, managed to win PCI status during the COVID pandemic in November 2021. Since then, MEPs have carried the gas projects’ eligibility for EU funding, approving them in April 2022, and recognising gas as a transitional fuel while Europe moves towards carbon neutrality by 2050.

The European Commission’s REPowerEU strategy now plans to unleash another €10 billion in new fossil gas infrastructure.

The NGOs want the Commission to review the approval of the PCI list, and will take its case forward to the Court of Justice of the EU to rule.

“The Commission did not consider the impact of methane emissions derived from gas infrastructure projects – in spite of evidence that these are substantial,” said ClienEarth lawyer Guillermo Ramo. “That’s unlawful as it directly clashes with the EU’s own climate laws and its legal obligations under the Paris Agreement.”

Methane, the main component of fossil gas, has a global warming potential over 85 times higher than that of CO2 over 20 years. Experts have clearly said no new gas or other fossil fuel developments should be built if the planet is to limit warming within 1.5C.

Natasa Ioannou, climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth Cyprus said: “The EastMed pipeline is a disaster for communities and the climate. It is not in the interests of local people in the region who will bear the costs of fossil fuel lock-in, and the harm to the ecologically-sensitive Mediterranean Sea. All along the route of the EastMed pipeline people are saying no to new fossil fuel infrastructure and yes to climate justice and to peace. EU funding must focus on supporting projects that implement just, fair, safe, and renewable energy solutions.”

Environmental NGOs have the right to ask EU institutions and bodies – in this case the European Commission – to review one of their own decisions for contravening EU law related to the environment. The Commission has up to 22 weeks to answer. If the claimants find that the Commission’s reply does not fix the legal violation, the claimants can sue the Commission in the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Gas extraction and transportation not only emits huge amounts of CO2: it is also a big emitter of potent and poisonous greenhouse gas methane. The drilling and extraction of gas from wells and its transit through pipelines results in emissions of methane – its primary component, which is a 85 timesmore powerful than carbon dioxide in storing heat over 20 years. Beyond climate, methane also has devastating impacts on human health – via air pollution – and ecosystems.

Both the IEA and the IPCC have clearly said no new oil and gas extraction projects  should be built if we are to keep warming within 1.5C. Additionally, a recent study found that nearly half of existing fossil fuel production sites need to be shut down early if 1.5C is to be achieved.