Oil has been used in Italy since ancient times; indeed, the very word petroleum comes from the medieval Latin petrae oleum, meaning ‘stone oil’. However, in the mid-19th century there was a big jump in supply due to the emergence of American drilling technology – and also in demand following the unification of Italy. Gas for public street-lighting was the main driver then, but at the beginning of the 20th century the search turned towards finding oil to fuel motor vehicles.
The dominance of foreign companies
The First World War and the 1920s marked the beginning of the global oil era, with the big European and US companies consolidating their operations in North America, the Middle East, the Caucasus and even Italy. Although Italy was the first country in Europe to produce hydrocarbons, at this time the sector was dominated by foreign firms. Italian industry was not particularly advanced – especially the oil and energy sector, which was made up of small companies unable to withstand the competition. As a result, these big foreign corporations had a major influence on the country’s politics and economy.
First steps toward a national energy policy
The first attempt to create a national oil company came in the early years of the Fascist regime, with the foundation in 1926 of Agip (Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli). Although funding was chronically short, Agip managed to conduct initial exploration and extraction operations at home and abroad in Africa and the Middle East. While the discovery of a large natural gas field in the Po Valley dates back to those years, the imminent Second World War and Italy's relationship with Germany meant the discovery was kept secret, only becoming public knowledge once the war was over in 1945.
Eni's breakthrough: energy for the Italian miracle
As Italy lay in ruins in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Allies demanded the break-up of Agip. The government handed the task to Enrico Mattei, but on realising the size and potential of the Po Valley gas field he decided instead to step up exploration activities. Following the field’s initial success, Mattei convinced the government to establish Italy's first major energy company – Eni (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi) – in 1953 and it soon began distributing natural gas and fuel to households and companies. Italy finally had the energy company it needed to fully pursue its economic miracle, transforming it into the modern country that we know today.