Marcello Colitti, an Exemplary Civil Servant

Our friend Marcello (1932-2015), member of Insight Editorial Board, passed away on July 19th..

I met Marcello Colitti soon after he was hired by Eni, then an oil&gas public body. The prompt mutual feeling was not due to our common involvement in the energy business only . We shared cultural interests and political visions too, a background which has supported a long lasting friendship.

One would have expected that a character like Marcello - globally minded, open to any novelty, capable to feel at his ease everywhere –was inclined to enrich his skills by frequently changing both employer and country.  On the contrary, he spent his full professional activity inside Eni.

I was not surprised. Since the very beginning Marcello endorsed Mattei’s vision of Eni: a public body having the task of promoting the development of Italy as a modern industrial country by assuring its energy security.  This idea was strengthened by Mattei’s death, since the latter  was for him much more than a boss: a second father, replacing the biological one he lost when thirteen.

Afterwards, whenever in Marcello’s opinion  the company was moving away from the ideal targets designed by Mattei, he reacted as a man deceived by a closed relative, but never expressed the purpose of quitting Eni:  a disloyalty he could not stand.

His criticism was mainly addressed to the attitude towards the Arab partners, prevailing among his colleagues. “People are looking down on them, distrust them without any sensible reason. As a matter of fact, they are so prejudiced against Arabs that don’t even take into consideration the chance of knowing them better”.

On the contrary this was Marcello’s main concern, which led him to frequent travels in Middle East. At the very end he got a deep knowledge of those countries, which allowed him to understand their habits, to appreciate their culture, to become well acquainted with top oil men. He trusted them and was evenly trusted. Once I was involved in an initiative aimed at building a LNG terminal. Thus I was charged with getting information on the availability of LNG in Qatar.  Marcello was already retired, but in a few days he succeeded in organizing a meeting in Doha, where I was received by the Minister of Gas and the Minister of Energy all together.

Marcello was  confident that cooperation between buyer and seller may produce the highest positive effect, maximizing the interest of both of seller and buyer. Thus at in the late ‘70s, when Western countries were shocked by the first oil crisis,  soon after appointed head of Eni strategic planning, he launched the Interdependence Project. By comparing non-cooperative versus cooperative strategies of both producers and consumers of oil, the study, performed by Arab and European economists, concluded that the second option was by far the best.   Price of oil and investment in the oil countries, along with their poor relations, could be optimized so as to achieve the maximum common economic development.

The conclusions of the study were presented in  1981 to  an international  meeting, held in Rome. Thanks to Marcello’s efforts, Arab top oil men attended the meeting. The same did not happen on the Italian side; no minister, no key politician was present, most probably because of pressures from the United States, at that time against any cooperation with  OPEC countries. The potential starting point of a new Italian policy towards Middle East turned into a stimulating economic workshop.

Marcello felt so bitterly disappointed that his conversations and his writings often came back to the failure of this initiative. He was outspoken, thus he did not conceal his criticism against the Italian government to several Eni top managements, mostly appointed because of their strict connection with majority parties.  Therefore Marcello was removed from his office and transferred to other tasks.

In despite of that he went on making use of his ingenuity in other fields, such as instituting a newco, named Ecofuel, a decision which for the first time displayed his concern about the environmental impact of energy exploitation, later on enlarged to include topical items such as the global warming. A sharp change with respect to his previous point of view, substantially uninterested in what was hampering the economic growth; a further proof of his open mind.

On the contrary, Marcello never changed his position on Eni, even when he retired and none of the top executives showed interest in further exploiting his world wide knowledge, hiring him as an adviser. Only once we openly argued on “Staffetta Quotidiana”, a daily energy newsletter where both of us were columnists, and the casus belli was just Eni.

In my opinion deregulating the gas market implied the unbundling of the gas transmission pipeline, even more when owned by the incumbent. The political confrontation on this issue lasted until 2012, when a Parliament act transferred the pipeline ownership to an independent company.  Since love is often blind, even after this decision Marcello went on arguing against it, unconcerned by the clear preponderance of pros on cons.

Just one year ago we were together at his last public appearance, in a Trieste theatre, where an anchorman questioned us on the main events marking the Italian energy scenery after the second world war. His bright and comprehensive answers were so fascinating that most of them were greeted with applauses.

That public was unaware of bestowing the right honors upon a man whose practical and cultural contribution to the energy world too often was not acknowledged.

G.B. Zorzoli

Giovanni Battista Zorzoli is an Italian engineer and professor, expert in nuclear energy and renewable energy sources.