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Italy's Descalzi set for record fourth term as Eni CEO, sources say

FILE PHOTO: Claudio Descalzi, CEO of Italian energy company Eni talks to media at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia

By Giuseppe Fonte and Francesca Landini

ROME (Reuters) -The chief executive of Italy's Eni Claudio Descalzi is on course to secure Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's backing for an unprecedented fourth term at the top energy group, sources told Reuters.

Another three years in office would make Descalzi, who has held the job since 2014, the longest-serving company head at the state-controlled group since its foundation in 1953.

The nomination process at Italy's state-controlled firms is getting into full swing, and Meloni made it clear she wants to put her stamp on key jobs when Rome on Thursday appointed economist Riccardo Barbieri as Treasury director general, replacing Alessandro Rivera in the position.

While Rivera failed to win over Meloni to continue, Descalzi will likely be reappointed, two government sources said.

An Eni veteran with strong experience in the exploration and production business, Descalzi last year helped Rome secure alternative gas supplies as Moscow curtailed its flows to Italy.

The path to make the country independent from Moscow will not be completed until late 2024 and key figures in Meloni's right-wing government want Descalzi to remain in office, as Rome deems his knowledge of Africa a key asset, the sources added.

Eni said it would not comment on decisions that are up to its shareholders.

The top executive is due to travel with Meloni to Algiers on Jan. 22 and 23, when the energy group and its Algerian counterpart Sonatrach are expected to announce new deals.

Closer relations with Algeria are part of Italy's efforts to gradually replace around 25 billion cubic metres of Russian gas over three years.

NOT GREEN ENOUGH?

Descalzi is due to present Eni's latest business plan on Feb. 23 and his third term comes to an end in May.

In 2020, his reappointment was linked to his commitment to speed up efforts to cut carbon emissions without penalising the group's growth and dividend flow.

Three years on, Eni's decarbonisation strategy is still the target of criticism by energy transition advocates, who say the company should spend more to develop its green businesses.

"Renewables and electric mobility - which are considered mature green technologies - are areas in which Eni still invests very little compared with other oil and gas companies," Luca Bergamaschi, co-founder of energy transition independent think-tank ECCO, told Reuters.

Eni aims to reach an installed capacity in renewable energy of at least 15 gigawatts (GW) compared with 100 GW planned by France's TotalEnergies by 2030.

On electric cars, Eni's goal is to set up 35,000 charging points while TotalEnergies plans 150,000 by 2025.

More generally, ECCO questions Eni's plans for new exploration and production of gas, saying the group should limit its fossil fuel business to exploiting resources already discovered.

Descalzi, who has introduced a target for net-zero carbon emissions from exploration and production operations by 2030, has repeatedly said that Europe cannot cover all its energy needs only with renewable energy sources.

Talks within the ruling parties over the nominations will enter a crunch phase after regional elections in the key regions of Lombardy and Lazio in February, the sources said. They usually go down to the wire and sometimes can change unexpectedly on political vagaries.

The Treasury, which owns 4.4% of Eni and controls another 26.2% via state lender CDP, has the right to appoint six members of Eni's nine-strong board under a list of candidates to be presented by mid-April.

(Editing by Keith Weir, Kirsten Donovan)