In a nod to the visionary founder of Italian oil major Eni, prime minister Giorgia Meloni spoke of a modern “Mattei plan” for Africa in her inauguration speech three months ago.
During the 1950s, the late Enrico Mattei sought to support African countries’ development of their natural resources to help the continent maximise its economic growth potential and facilitate Italy’s energy independence.
As Europe rethinks its energy policy and seeks to wean itself off Russian gas, Italy is once more eyeing a similar strategy through its sector companies. Meloni, the leader of Italy’s nationalist rightwing government, said: “After years of backtracking we’d like to regain our strategic role in the Mediterranean.”
The vision of Mattei, who was mysteriously killed in a plane crash in 1962, is still a work in progress but, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the question of energy independence has gained new urgency. And Italy senses there are opportunities for its companies in dealing with the region’s energy crisis.
In particular, Italian industry experts believe that the deep knowledge of state-controlled Eni of the African continent and its longstanding commercial ties to Middle Eastern countries could turn into a national asset as Europe works to secure new energy sources. Eni has operated in Africa since 1954, with operations in 14 countries.
Claudio Descalzi, chief executive of Eni, has told the Financial Times closer collaboration with countries in Africa on energy matters offered the potential for a new “south-north axis” connecting the continent’s abundant renewable and fossil fuel resources with the energy-hungry markets of Europe.
Last year the group entered a joint venture with Doha’s QatarEnergy, the world’s largest liquefied natural gas exporter, to expand the North Field East project.
Under Mario Draghi’s former government last year, Eni negotiated new supply agreements with Algeria, which has overtaken Russia as Italy’s main gas supplier. Eni said it also planned to increase investments in countries including the Republic of the Congo, Angola, Nigeria and Mozambique.
Africa has abundant energy resources but their development has suffered from under-investment. A sub-Saharan pipeline project from Nigeria to Algeria, for example, has been in the works for decades.
Now, European governments have indicated they want to invest in the existing infrastructure to boost flows from the region. Eni and Snam, which already operate parts of the Trans Mediterranean Pipeline from Algeria to northern Italy, have an important role to play, according to industry experts in Italy.
Another space in which Italy could reap opportunities is energy transition. North African countries have enormous renewable energy potential and in the future the region could be a green hydrogen production hub, a project Snam has been discussing for years.
Former Snam chief Marco Alverà believes Italy has multiple advantages for renewable energy in its geographical position, existing infrastructure like storage capacity and world-class engineering companies such as Saipem and Maire Technimont.
“We have to put the solar panels where it’s sunny and where there’s space, Europe doesn’t have enough space even where it’s sunny, so we’ll have to import renewable energy,” says Alverà, who now heads Brussels-based green hydrogen company TES and is the co-founder of renewable energy company Zhero.
Italy should also take stock of its utility company’s Enel’s expertise, industry experts say. The €57bn energy group is also a leading renewables producer in Europe and it already owns a large Sicily-based solar panel manufacturer. The group could help Italy become a leading player in north Africa’s energy industry’s expansion, the experts say.
If the EU and Italy do not step up their involvement in Africa, rivals are poised. Russia’s Gazprom has already manifested an interest in the sub-Saharan pipeline project and held negotiations with Nigerian counterparties.
And Laura El-Katiri, a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, points out: “Without strong European engagement, north African countries are likely to rely on other, dominant suppliers in clean energy value chains, particularly China.”
Such a scenario that would deal a significant blow to the EU and to the Italian nationalist government’s quest to regain a leading role in the Mediterranean.