From the Tunisian coast the Transmed runs across the seabed to the Sicilian coast and then up to Minerbio, in the middle of the Po Valley. The huge pipeline linking Africa and Europe, built in 1983 and doubled in 1994, has transported more than 200 b.c.m. of gas. The protagonists comment. The Ministry of Industry, Moncef Ben Abdallah, emphasizes the importance of energy collaboration between Tunisia and Italy.
NOTE: originally published by E.N.I’s Ecos magazine on 1998.
Thirty thousand years ago, the Sicilian Channel did not exist: it was possible to walk from Italy to Tunisia", says an ancient guide amid the Punic ruins of the hill of Byrsa. Two thousand two hundred years ago, Romans and Carthaginians crossed seas and mountains to fight a bitter war.
Today, with the Transmed, one of the biggest and most impressive international gas pipelines, the golden age in which Italy and Africa were geographically one has been recreated and marks economic co-operation that is not just one-way. Twice, in November 1997 and in April of this year, due to exceptional circumstances in Algeria, the flow of methane was interrupted.
Snam informed the Tunisian government that it was willing to invert the flow of gas and send it from Italy to Tunisia, in order not to leave the towns and companies of a friendly country without a major source power. By taking natural gas from the heart of the Sahara to the monumental centers of the Renaissance, Snam's Transmed has made Italy and Tunisia more closely united than they were in pre-historic times, when the Sicilian Channel could be crossed on foot.
In fifteen years, the gas-line has transported two hundred billion cubic meters of natural gas, and the success and significance of this enterprise lie in the fact that Italy and Tunisia have shown in a practical way, in emergencies, that they are bound by a natural partnership and a pact of mutual support.
The natural gas links two countries, on the threshold of what the Tunisian Minister of Industry called "the gas century".
Interest in this power of the future unites the two economies. One third of all the natural gas that enters the Italian gas network comes from the Transmed and more than one third, almost 40 percent, of Tunisia's energy requirement is now covered by gas.
The gas-line leads the two countries back to their history: the longest Roman aqueduct in ancient history was built in Tunisia, and ran from Zaghouan to Carthage. The Transmed, built by Snam between 1977 and 1983 and doubled between 1991 and 1994, was certainly one of the most demanding projects ever carried out. The Tunisian stretch cost in all US$ 1,450 million, the biggest investment ever made in Tunisia.
The total length of the Transmed is 2,430 km, of which 500 are in Algeria, starting at the "monster" field of Hassi R'Mel, 370 in Tunisia, 160 under the Mediterranean and 1,400 in Italy.
The sub-sea section is universally considered a masterpiece of engineering: the pipes lie at a depth of 611 meters, a record yet unbeaten. Laying the pipes in the Straits of Messina in water 350 meters deep and strong currents was a formidable enterprise.
Arab poets call the desert the sea of sand, and do not see it as being in contrast with the blue sea of Cape Bon. The Transmed unites these two seas, practically as well as ideally. It does so in a commercial and formal manner, which also has something ritual about it.
Every day two representatives of Scogat, a company operating under Tunisian law but wholly owned by Snam and established for the construction of the trans-Tunisian gasline, set off from the Feriana power station, cross the Algerian border and after two hundred meters, stop at the delivery point of Oued Saf Saf.
Here they check the quantity and quality of the gas coming in, and sign a report. In 1998, when the normal rate is reached, the Transmed will be able to channel about 23 billion 500 million cubic meters of gas, including 19 billion conveyed on behalf of Snam, 4 billion purchased directly by Enel and 300 million by the Slovene company Geoplin. Tunisia obtains one billion cubic meters of gas per annum as tax dues on the methane passing through the Transmed.
"This is an important source of income for the Tunisian state", says Mr. Anselmi, the President and General Manager of Scogat. "In practice, this is equivalent to what would be yielded by a big gas field, second only to Miskar, a field off Sfax, which produces one billion 400 million cubic meters per annum.
Tunisia is convinced of the strategic value of gas. Indeed, the 1977 agreement with Snam on the construction of the first gasline and the 1991 agreement for doubling it were not just two contracts between companies, but two Tunisian laws."
When it was in the project phase, it seemed that the Transmed would be a nuisance for Tunisia, whose territory would be crossed by pipes from one end to the other. Experience soon disproved this initial impression.
On each of the two occasions when the flow of Algerian gas was interrupted, the Transmed system proved its efficiency. "After the first accident in November, no gas arrived from Algeria for three days running", says Mr. Anselmi. "We closed the valves and stopped the transport of methane.
But there was still quite a lot inside the pipes. We immediately diverted it into the local network, and it satisfied Tunisia's requirements for those three days. In April, the problem was solved by reducing the flow rate.
Both emergencies showed that the pipeline does more than just channel gas through the country: it is even more essential for Tunisia than it is for Italy."
With Snam, the Eni group, which has a leading world position, has "launched" methane as an alternative source of power. Snam was the first company to import natural gas from Russia and the Netherlands.
In the Sixties it laid the foundations for the European network of gaslines. The Transmed has already brought many advantages to Tunisia, the President of Scogat points out. "Gas distribution networks have been built in the towns (particularly Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, Hammamet, Gabes and Nabeul) and for some major production sectors."
In Tunisia the Eni formula was immediately translated into reality: integration and co-operation with local engineers, cadres and skilled workers, who have always formed the overwhelming majority of the personnel. Sergas (the company responsible for the operation and maintenance of the gasline) has only 5 Italian employees out of 161.
The technical manager is an Italian appointed directly by the Board of Snam. "Integration has been a hundred per cent success," says Mr. Anselmi, "The spirit of belonging to the Eni group is very strong. Training in Italy followed by fifteen years' experience with one of the world's major gaslines give the Tunisian engineers and technicians a very high professional level. And they are proud of it."
If it were not for the little orange buoys that act as signs for ships, who would know that below the bright red rocks and turquoise sea of Cape Bon there are five Transmed pipes running towards Mazara del Vallo? The Tunisian stretch of gasline was a challenge won in harmony with the environment and the landscape. The pipes cross the region of the salt lakes, whose glittering surface conjures up many a mirage. Then they pass through oases famous for the sweetness of their dates.
They touch archaeological areas such as Kasserine (ancient Cillium) and Sbeitla, the holy city of Kairouan, whose mosque is the oldest in Tunisia and one of the oldest in Islam. They cross railways, wadi, deserts. In many places they have revived agriculture, and made the soil more fertile.
Then they reach the sea, in what is certainly the most fascinating part of Tunisia, with its olive groves, vineyards and orange orchards. Along the Tunisian route, the Transmed respects the habitat and beauty of the landscape, just as it does in Italy.
At Cape Bon the most refined technicque was applied. The principle is to fit technological structures into the natural ecosystem with the least possible impact. It was successfully applied to the passage of the gasline over the Pratomagno mountains in Tuscany. Here squares of turf were lifted as in a fresco, conserved and replaced. At El Haouaria, near Cape Bon, Eni experts photographed the area carefully, before and after the construction of the booster station.
When the work was finished, the landscape looked even more attractive than before: pines and eucalyptus trees had been planted, in order to create a thick screen to hide the industrial plant from a far-off observer. There is a wonderful beach at El Haouaria. The Tunisian girls that bathe there had never smelt such a strong perfume of Mediterranean scrub, with all its varieties, from thyme to rosemary.
By Luigi Dell'Aglio
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)