Was That a Crisis? Industrial Adjustments and Ecological Claims in the 1970s Lomellina, Italy

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This is the first post in a series based on papers presented at workshop held in Banff, Alberta by Petra Dolata and David Painter called “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: The Oil Crises of the 1970s and the Transformation of the Postwar World.”

In slightly more than ten years, between 1963 and 1981, a remarkable change happened with the production of fossil fuels in Lomellina, Italy. The story of the Eni Sannazzaro plant started in the 1960s, with the rise of “the largest refinery in Europe.”1 According to local administrators’ hopes, it should have contributed to the “economic rebirth”2 of the region that was “launched toward a goal of remarkable future”3 thanks to the “possibility of industrialization.”4 However, in less than a decade the circumstances changed and the community focused on “the past and future… consequences of the refinery presence as a burden on the municipalities.”5

The local perspective and the oil crises

The case of Lomellina allows us to grasp the unattended nuances of the 1970s oil crises. I argue that a local perspective allows us to highlight the spatialized and differentiated experiences of the crises. Seen from Lomellina, the oil crises acquire different shades, letting us understand that industrial decline is not a uniform process. With this perspective, we can see the 1970s as, besides a period of crises, a period of opportunities to activate social and political actions, especially environmental claims. These actions and claims arose thanks also to the awareness of the limits of the existing energetic and economic model that was a consequence of the 1970s oil crises.

My point of departure is a reflection on how we think on and analyse oil crises as an object/subject of research. Usually, a geopolitical, macro-regional, and international perspective is adopted, focusing on the global order, national and international decision-making, effects on the national economies and the global economy.6 Here I welcome a perspective on the oil crises as a global “crucial transformative phase.”7 Nonetheless, a juxtaposition of local perspective is possible and desirable, as it helps to complicate the presumed uniformity of the oil crises. My aim is to question the homogeneous negative implications of the crises as a global decline in the economic-energetic system, and to investigate the differential impact of the crises on peoples. The concept of “crisis” is controversial, since it is both “real” and “socially constructed.” The meaning of the events and changes causing a crisis is malleable and contested.8

As the concept of crisis can be interpreted as socially constructed (or, at least, as a combination of reality of processes and a construction of their meaning), the same can be done for ecological issues.  Not only is the materiality of ecological problems interesting, but also what is or is not defined as ecologically relevant, harmful, or polluting by social actors themselves.9

Lomellina as a viewpoint: the 1970s as crises, the 1970s as possibilities

As the quotes in the beginning suggest, in the first period of industrial growth in Lomellina, the enthusiasm for the plant’s construction seemed to overshadow the economic and environmental costs that were to be paid by the local communities for the industrial presence.

photograph of large industrial facility. two tall smoke stacks behind a large rectangular building.
The construction of the Eni Sannazzaro plant in 1962. Photograph courtesy of Emanuele Leoni.

At this stage, costs were unbalanced and all to be absorbed by municipal governments. From the 1970s onwards, the two municipalities of Ferrera and Sannazzaro began to realize that the huge expectations they had in the industry-driven development possibilities were unrealistic. Officials challenged the idea that the construction and growth of the plant was unproblematic, and they started to acknowledge the limits and problems, and realized that the fossil-fuelled development model had social and environmental costs.

The emergence of the oil crises in the public debate, and the way their meaning was framed, coincided with the rise of debate on ecological issues in Lomelina and Italy more broadly. The debate was also nurtured by the 1976 chemical plant explosion disaster in Seveso,10 which was a turning point in the process of rethinking industrial risk management.

In Italy and Lomellina, the 1970s and the 1980s were indeed a controversial period of lights and shadows in the refining sector. Despite many closures of refineries in Italy during the 1970s, in Lomellina the same years were characterized by a gradual and continuous expansion of the plant, which doubled its size in 1973, and increased its production. From a demographic point of view, the trend was influenced by the presence of the plant, especially in the municipality of Sannazzaro. The censuses of 1971, a few years after the refinery was established, and 1981 showed a continuous increase in population in the region. In the same period, the municipal council of Sannazzaro asked Eni to sign a first agreement for a contribution to face industrial costs. The agreement mentions environmental costs, and set the limits of the plants’ air emissions and a process to start to monitor them. A clear shift occurred in 1981, when the awareness of the population of Sannazzaro de’ Burgondi rose following the signing of a new and more complex agreement. This event was the most symbolic step in terms of both concern for environmental costs and demands for economic benefits from the industry. The agreement was drawn up between Eni and the Sannazzaro municipal administration. The agreement helped to formalize the relation between the plant direction, the political players, and the experts. It also defined the monitoring of emissions, as well as air, water, and soil quality. It was a moment of emergence of local community agency and claims about economic benefits and environmental protection.

cartoon depicting a white knight on a white horse brandishing a sword against a fire breathing black dog.
“Watch out, disgusting beast.” Cartoon from the satirical page “SatyrECOn” of the magazine L’Eco di Sannazzaro, January-February 1984.
Stored at the municipal library of Sannazzaro de’ Burgondi, open access.

Crisis as a possibility?

Lomellina’s case provide an unexpected perspective on the oil crisis. The case study allows us to think of the 1970s as not just a challenging period of global economic decline, but also as a moment of possibilities for environmental awareness to rise. Global and national processes have consequences on the economic, energetic and environmental aspects of the everyday experiences of local populations that is much more difficult to grasp if we just take a broader perspective. A local perspective, on the other hand, can help us to understand the non-uniform, multifaceted, and daily realisation of the oil crisis on local populations.

Feature image: View of the countryside and the refinery in Lomellina. Photo by the author.


1. Resolution of the city council dated 3/12/1964 with the subject “Communications of the president” stored in the historical archives of the municipality of Sannazzaro. Eni is a multinational company that mainly extracts, refines, and distributes petroleum products. It was created by the Italian State as a public body in 1953, and transformed into a joint-stock company in 1992. Sannazzaro de’ Burgondi is a village in the area called Lomellina, in the Pavia province in northern Italy, where in 1962-63 the Eni refining plant was located.

2. Resolution of the city council with the subject “Opinion of the city administration regarding the refinery being built between Ferrera E. and Sannazzaro de’ Burg.” dated 3/10/1961, stored in the historical and current archives of the municipality of Ferrera Erbognone.

3. Resolution of the city council dated 3/12/1964 with the subject “Communications of the president” stored in the historical archives of the municipality of Sannazzaro.

4. Resolution of the city council with the subject “Opinion of the city administration regarding the refinery being built between Ferrera E. and Sannazzaro de’ Burg.” dated 3/10/1961, stored in the historical and current archives of the municipality of Ferrera Erbognone.

5. Resolution of the city council with the subject “Enhancement of the Po Refinery – Spa – approval of the outline of the agreement for urbanization charges” dated 9/8/1974, stored in the historical archives of Sannazzaro de’ Burgondi.

6. As mentioned within the call for abstract for the “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” conference.

7. Bösch F., Graf R. “Reacting to Anticipations: Energy Crises and Energy Policy in the 1970s. An Introduction,” Historical Social Research, 39, 4 (2014): 7.

8. Walby S. Crisis. (Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press, 2015) 15.

9. Hannigan J. Environmental Sociology: A Sociological Constructionist Perspective. New York/Londra: Routledge, 1996.

10. Centemeri L. Ritorno a Seveso. Il danno ambientale, il suo riconoscimento, la sua riparazione. Milano: Mondadori Bruno, 2006.

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Cecilia Pasini is currently a research fellow in social geography at the University of Florence. Her research interests are: social responses to energy plants, industrial decline, environment and loss, industrialisation and deindustrialisation processes, noxious deindustrialisations, energy transitions, environmental justice, animal geographies, slow mobilities. She defends her PhD thesis in May 2024, her work is titled “Fossil territories in the light of industrial decline. A long-term reading of the relationship between energy, society and the environment in the case of the Eni refinery in Lomellina”. For this research she carried out field research with qualitative methodology in and around the Eni petrochemical refinery of Sannazzaro de Burgondi on the long term, analysing private, public and firm archives and doing semi-structured interviews with local stakeholders. During her PhD she established international academic ties: with the department of regional studies of the University of Tübingen through two research stays, and with the laboratoire Mesopolhis, with two stays at the Université de Aix-Marseille.

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