Inside the “Texas of Italy”

 By Marco Bardazzi

Travelling on the roads of Europe’s largest onshore field (Val d’Agri, Italy), among air sniffers and electronic ears: a network of environmental monitors that is second to none.

Let’s try a test. This photo shows glimpse of Europe’s largest onshore oil and gas field and there is an Eni drilling well: try to spot it.

It is not easy, is it? Yet we are in the Val d’Agri in Basilicata, in the middle of what is sometimes called the “Texas of Italy”. An image you bring with you when you take the roads of this valley and expect to find the landscapes of the Texan oilmen.

But, in fact, there are two things you tend to forget when talking about Basilicata and the natural resources it holds underground. The first is that nowhere, in all of continental Europe, is as rich in hydrocarbons as this beautiful part of Italy. The second is the care that, over the years, has been taken to make it productive while limiting the environmental impact and respecting the territory.

There are currently 27 wells in production in the Val d’Agri (in the picture you can see the “Monte Enoc 5” tower, it is in the centre near the telephone pole). They are connected by 100 km of underground and completely invisible pipelines, that connect them the Centro Oli Val D’Agri (COVA) network, in turn the starting point of the pipeline – also in this case invisible – that transports the production directly to the Taranto refinery. An environmental monitoring network covers an area of ​​100 square kilometres all around the COVA, with 8 monitoring points per km2. The measurements are extensive and cover everything: 6 units for air quality; 8 “electronic noses” that constantly sniff the area of ​​the oil centre; 4 noise monitors; 26 sampling points for surface water; 22 piezometers to test groundwater. And then, 15 micro-seismic monitoring stations and 53 lichen bio-monitoring points. In the 100 km2 surrounding the oil centre the, Eni has successfully activated 223 sampling sites for flora and 156 for local fauna.

A comparable level of environmental in Europe exists only at some fields in Norway, Great Britain and Holland. But the 100 square kilometres around the COVA beats them all. In the Netherlands, at Groningen, there is a field that has been active for over 50 years and has produced on average 6 times more than the approximately 80,000 barrels of oil per day that are conveyed to COVA, and yet the Dutch environmental monitoring network is much less extensive than that in Basilicata. And the treatment centre in Corrib, in Ireland, which is considered a model at the European level, extends over an area much smaller than that of the Val d’Agri and does not achieve the same level of monitoring of the air, odours, acoustics or a comparable check on water.

Travelling on the roads between Viggiano and Grumento Nova, in the heart of the valley, is to experience silence, breath-taking scenery and wide open spaces. The rhythms are often those of centuries-old agriculture, punctuated by the singing of the cicadas and accompanied by scents that are matched to the great tradition of the local Lucanian cooking and its famous “cruschi” peppers. And the wells? They are there, of course, but leave a footprint on the landscape and environment much smaller than you might think.

Let’s look at one: the “Monte Enoc 5”, the semi-invisible rig in the first photo. To find it, you need to go into a forest and reach a patch no larger than a football field. When you tun off the engine of the car that brought you this far, the only noise you hear in the countryside is a slight rumbling that struggles to compete with the cicadas and with some dog barking in the vicinity. Up close, the derrick, the drilling tower, is impressive, but much less than a high voltage pylon. One look is enough to understand why it was difficult to locate it in the distance: the towers and its facilities here are camouflaged with colours that have been researched by Eni to blend in with the surroundings. Except for the top of the derrick, which has a bright red light to comply with the safety requirements for aviation, everything else is in the “colour of the Val d”Agri”.

When the tower has completed its work and reached the field, it will be dismantled and the area will become something like this, a nearby fully operational well that reaches 3500 metres underground, but on the surface the footprint is minimum and the “soccer field” could actually be used for … a soccer match.

The noise impact on the environment is equally contained. Let’s try to get inside the drilling tower, the noisiest part (even if from the outside the sound is very muffled). Have you ever seen a well while it drills the ground? As in this short video:

A look inside the drilling tower

And when the drilling is finished, and the well goes into full production? Let’s go back to the previous well, the one in the middle of the “soccer field”: in this video, there’s all the noise you will hear, that is, none. The only thing that disturbs silence of the Val d’Agri in this case is the sound of the gravel beneath my feet.

The power of silence

Mount Enoch 5 is a point in the network that Eni has built over the years in Val d’Agri, which belongs to the Southern District (DIME), located in a former convent in Viggiano. The overall network is illustrated in this diagram:

A strategic network

Production levels are summarised in the table below, which gives a brief idea why Basilicata and the Val d’Agri are the heart of the culture of energy in our country. To achieve these results, in 2014 Eni recorded a number of jobs in the oil sector in Basilicata that totalled 3,530 people, an increase of 23.2% compared with 2013 and 45.4% on 2012. 54% of workers engaged in ancillary is resident in Basilicata. As for direct employees, the DIME has a staff of 409 people, an increase of 17.5% compared with 2013 (all employees of DIME are on permanent contracts).

Production levels in one chart

These are numbers that tell a story with a significance that goes well beyond the corporate objectives that Eni has adopted in this area. The broader sense has been well captured by the director of DIME, Enrico Trovato, a young manager who had already toured oil fields all over the world before taking over the leadership of the activities in the Southern District. “In the continuing economic difficulties of the South,” he said when presenting the latest edition of Eni’s Local Report, “the growth of Eni Basilicata, which has continued over the years, bodes well both in terms of employment and quality. For a company that focuses its activities on the value of people, the steady increase of skilled workers is an important indicator of confidence. And we think this will be important also for the territory of the Val d’Agri, which with a viable, competitive and sustainable industry can find increased momentum for the planning of its future.”

Moreover, oil in Basilicata is part of its history and natural wealth, an established Lucanian resource like wheat, olives or the excellent vineyards of Aglianico del Vulture. In ancient Tramutola, in the Val d’Agri there are the natural offshoots of hydrocarbons that it is said were already known at the time when Benedictine monks arrived in the area in the Middle Ages. For centuries no one knew what to do with the substances that flowed from the bowels of the earth. They were only studied seriously from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when the Inspectorate of the Royal Mining Corps awarded the first real measurements. In 1912 the Società Petroli d’Italia (SPI) drew up the first contracts with local landowners, but the exploration in Basilicata at that time did not give the results that were hoped for.

A typical natural offshoots of hydrocarbons

In 1933 AGIP tried again and this time the outcome was positive. In 1937 the Tramutola field was discovered, which was kept open for a decade with exploration and production activities. AGIP continued to explore the area until 1959, when it drilled its last well in Tramutola, which proved to be sterile.

For a long time, Italy and Basilicata lost the pioneering spirit necessary to stimulate the search for underground treasure. And so they gave trying to exploit a resource from which the fragile Lucanian economy would undoubtedly have benefited. But it was the sixties, when oil flowed in rivers from Arab countries and in spite of the economic boom and the growing need for sources of energy to sustain it, Italy and Europe seemed content to look outside its continental borders to meet domestic demand.

It was only with the arrival of austerity, at the height of the oil crisis of 1973 following the Yom Kippur War, that it was decided to return to look for oil in Basilicata.

In 1975 AGIP obtained a permit for a new exploration campaign and finally discovered in Val d’Agri what soon turned out to be the largest hydrocarbon deposits on mainland Europe.

With its wealth above and below ground, the Val d’Agri, now has a double first in Europe to exploit: the resources and the tools to extract them in a sustainable manner while respecting the territory

The rest is recent history. The Val d’Agri still has a huge potential in terms of oil and gas reserves and can continue to produce wealth for its inhabitants and for the entire region. From 1988 to 2014, Eni paid Basilicata €1.6 billion in royalties related to extraction activities. Schools, universities, historic town centres, services and civil protection across the region are financed by this industry, which creates jobs in a wonderful area of ​​Italy, but in which many young people are often forced to accept the need to emigrate due to a lack of opportunities to meet their expectations.

The high level of attention that has rightly been dedicated to environmental protection in Basilicata, has made it possible to create a cutting-edge production model in terms of land monitoring. The 100 square kilometres of controls around the COVA prove this. With its wealth above and below ground, the Val d’Agri, now has a double first in Europe to exploit: the resources and the tools to extract them in a sustainable manner while respecting the territory.

There are now questions about the possibility of importing the kind of integration models that do not belong only to Scandinavian countries, but also to other Italian regions. This was explained effectively in an interview with the president of Nomisma Energia, Davide Tabarelli, who argued that tourism, industry and culture are not in conflict but complementary and the latter is the most needed of all three: “This is demonstrated by Ravenna with its 8 UNESCO sites, a major international energy district that employs more than 5000 people that is 500 metres from the beach of Marina, one of the most popular. Agriculture, fishing, tourism and the extraction industry not only coexist, but they help each other by using the same roads, the same services, the same hotels.” (La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, 9 August 2015, p. 2).

Sharing, integration, coexistence. These are concepts which go well with the traditional hospitality of the Val d’Agri and its traditions, including religious ones. From the top of the hill overlooking the valley, the shrine of the Black Madonna of the sacred mountain of Viggiano seems to keep watch over the rhythms and activities of the local communities. The image of Our Lady, apparently made in the sixth century, has survived persecution, raids and three Saracen invasions. For centuries it remained buried in a pit, where it had been placed by the faithful fleeing the Muslim invaders. Tradition has it that it was the appearance of fires on Mount Viggiano that indicated the place where it was kept and allowed it to be discovered. Today she is the Patroness and Queen of Lucania, a decision made in the ’60s by Pope Paul VI.

A land with so much history and tradition, has within it all that is needed to pursue the path of integration and coexistence between the different realities of industry, agriculture and culture. The road towards serious and sustainable growth passes through here.

about the author
Marco Bardazzi
Communications Director at Eni