Though the constant kidnapping of foreign oil workers and disruption of oil production in the Niger Delta have abated in the last one year, the issues that gave rise to militancy in the region remains unresolved, reports Godwin Nnanna from Port Harcourt.
Huge flames billow over the area as the early morning rain wets the ridges that Adaeze makes for cassava planting. As she waits for the rain to stop taking shed in a small hut, the large gas flare tunnel near her farm belch out noxious fumes.
39-year old Adaeze has seen such flames and large pillars of black smoke leap out of the several flare points in her community all her life. Her family’s one acre farmland is located a few metres away from one of the giant gas flares operated by Agip Oil and Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in Omoku. There are eight such flare points in Omoku alone.
“That one there,” she says pointing with the machete in her hand, “has been like that since I was born. My 13 year-old son came back from school one day and told me that one man who visited their school told them that the flame is the reason why one of his uncles went blind.” The uncle she tells about died two years ago.
For Adaeze and her family the motivation to cultivate the farmland stems more from culture than the desire to make a living from the venture. The farm has been left uncultivated by her family for the last four years. “A very few of my people are interested in farming any longer because the land is no longer as fertile as it used to be. The last time my father did something on this land was in 2007,” she explains noting that she decided to plant this year “just to see if things will be better this year”.
The extent of human damage attributable to gas flaring in Omoku and other Niger Delta communities is unclear but doctors have found an unusually high incidence of asthma, bronchitis, and skin and breathing problems in communities in oil-producing areas. A doctor who works in Ebocha-Egbema General hospital says the hospital regularly treat patients with all sorts of illnesses that he and his colleagues believe are a direct consequence of the huge toxic that comes from the gas flares: bronchial, chest, rheumatic, and eye problems.
Generations of Omoku and Ebocha residents have watched their siblings die from these ailments since the hellish towers of fire started throwing the auburn glow and its accompanying dark columns of smoke into the sky. Life expectancy in Omoku is just around 46. Peter, Adaeze’s 44 year old brother, says he can’t remember any day or night that the ‘light’ has failed to shine. “It never goes off no matter how much rain falls.”
“Agip and Total EPNL have been operating here for the last 40 years and have been flaring gas. I am not a medical doctor to know what the practice has done to the health of our people. But I know that people no longer live beyond 55 years. Besides, the level of poverty and hunger here is worrisome,” John Ebrika, a UK-based lawyer and an indigene of Omoku, said.
Omoku, and many other communities in the Niger Delta, are a maze of winding mangrove creeks and waterways. Leafy, green and humid, Ebocha-Egbema is an unremarkable collection of small villages with tin-roof houses and shops, located in the heart of the Rivers State. Much of these communities are daily blighted by gas plumes that ooze from various flare tunnels spreading toxic smoke and chemicals over their farms and homes.
As bright as it’s damaging
The flames light up the sky 24 hours a day, and the noise that comes from them is a continuous roar like a jet aircraft taking off. As you approach a gas flare, the first thing you notice is the heat. “They are so hot that even if you have your car air conditioner on, you must feel it as you drive pass by it,” says Ugochi, a resident of Ebocha. “I am not happy to say we are used to it because it is not a good thing to get used to, but that is our reality,” he says.
Despite pressure from environmentalists for the practice to end, it has persisted since 53 years ago when Nigeria started commercial oil exploration in the region. Health experts say that gases emitted into the atmosphere during gas flares contain such sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other carcinogenic volatile organic compounds as dioxin, benzene and toluene. “The oil companies and their partners in government do not value our lives,” Ugochi says. “Their interest is in the oil beneath our soil and not on us,” he insists.
Many of the activists cum militants who vented their anger and frustration on the federal government and its partners by destroying oil installations in the area, have shield their sword and embraced the government’s amnesty programme. So far, over 1,400 of them have attended or are still attending various training programmes in Dubai, Malaysia, Ghana and South Africa as part of the amnesty initiative.
Since Goodluck Jonathan, a former governor of Bayelsa, emerged the president of Nigeria – the first ever to come from the Niger Delta - confidence in the amnesty programme has grown considerably. Exploration activities go on in the oil fields in the region with minimal disruption. Bombing of oil installations has ceased and kidnapping of foreign oil workers, which was a regular occurrence a few years ago, is rarely heard of today.
Despite the relative peace in the region, not much has changed in terms of its environmental condition. The oil companies still flare gas with reckless abandon as though there are no regulations. As far as deadlines for oil companies to end gas flaring are concerned, the goalpost is an endless one. It has been shifted more than fifteen times in the last two decades, yet nothing has worked.
Deadlines die as they are set
The federal government outlawed gas flaring in 1979, to be phased out five years later in 1984. But 27 years after the law, there is little sign that the practice will stop any time soon. Since oil companies pay a minuscule fee for flaring and are allowed to carry on under government-granted exceptions, there is little incentive to stop. Penalties and procedures are irregularly enforced.
The federal government enacted the Associated Gas Reinjection Act in 1979, which charged oil companies to stop the gas flaring within five years. However, the companies prefer to pay the government-imposed fine as a penalty for gas flaring rather than stopping the act. It looks apparently cheaper to do so than to put in place the infrastructure to either re-inject or harness the flared gas.
“The approximately $3 million per month of fines that the government receives is just a fraction of what it could impose. The reason fines are not increased is that the Nigerian government owes a big debt to oil companies,” notes Michiko Ishisone, an industry expert.
“Claims by Shell and some other major oil companies that they spend billions of dollars on investments to check gas flaring are mere propaganda aimed at warding off attacks by environmental activitists over their complicity in destroying the Niger Delta through harmful environmental practices,” said another industry source.
The cost of waste
Every year hundreds of millions of dollars literally go up in smoke in these oil-producing communities, as the various oil companies burn off unwanted natural gas released during oil production. Nigeria flares approximately 76 percent of associated gas, compared to about eight percent in Canada, according to recent publication on the gas flare situation in the country.
New findings point to the fact that Nigeria may be more of a gas than an oil producing country as the country's gas reserves is reported to be as high as 600 trillion cubic feet. But over the years, the country has little to harness this huge resource other than waste it. Put into power generation, experts say half of the gas the country flares would meet the energy need of the entire African continent. Most economists agree the electricity crisis is the single biggest barrier between Nigeria and increased prosperity.
At a daily rate of 2.5 billion cubic feet, Nigeria flares an estimated 23 billion cubic metres annually and is the second largest gas flaring country in the world, according to the World Bank. This, according to the bank, translates to over $2.5 billion annual losses, minus the health and environmental impacts caused by uncontrolled gas burning. Nigeria flares more gas than any other member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) an organization that boasts of members like Saudi Arabia with a daily output five times that of Nigeria.
The Managing Director of Agip Oil Nigeria, Ciro Antonio Pagano, acknowledges that “the full development of the gas market will significantly contribute to: improving the socio-economic development of the country; reduce environment pollution and eliminate gas flaring.” Pagano who was one of the speakers at the 2011 Nigeria Oil and Gas Conference held in March this year, knows the huge economic waste that the gas that the oil companies flare represents, but talk is cheap.
Apart from generating extra revenue for the government of up to $2.5 billion annually, dousing the flares would also address one of the many grievances that lie behind years of unrest in the delta. What has been lacking over the years, is genuine commitment on the part of the oil companies to ending the circle of waste. Aided by recalcitrant government agencies, these companies continue to destroy the eco-system of the Niger Delta with no clear plan as to when the anomaly would end.