Feb 28, 2008

Ogoni: A Deadline Slips and the Flaring Continues

Gas flaring in the Niger Delta continues despite a 1 January 2008 moratorium, but can the environment stands any more delays?

Gas flaring in the Niger Delta continues despite a 1 January 2008 moratorium, but can the environment stands any more delays?

Below is an article written by Sam Olukoya and published by Terraviva Africa:

Gas flaring continued in 2008 in defiance of the Nigerian government’s warning that the act would not be tolerated in the new year.

Responding to pressure from oil companies, the Nigerian government pushed the deadline back on Jan. 6 [2008]. A press statement issued by Levi Ajuonuma, group general manager of public affairs for the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), announced a shift of deadline from December 2007 to December 2008.

Since as far back as 1979, multinational oil companies have been successful in coercing the government to push back the deadlines it sets to stop gas flaring. The oil industry accounts for more than 90 percent of Nigeria’s export earnings.

"The fires are so large and so close to our homes and farms that we feel the heat. We know no darkness because they burn brightly for 24 hours every day," said Che Ibegwura of the Egi community.

After so many shifts in deadlines, Ibegwura is fed up and suspects that the new deadline may not be realistic. "I suspect that gas flaring will not stop on Dec. 31 2008, it will not happen, they have been fooling us all these years," he says, stressing that, "The oil companies and the Nigerian government are only concerned about proceeds from oil, they never consider the health of the people. Their greatest concern is profit."

Ibegwura has good reason to doubt the viability of the new deadline. The government has shifted past deadlines, giving into persistent lobbies from the very influential multinational oil companies. The companies insist that Nigeria needs several more years to stop gas flaring.

Nigeria flares the highest quantity of gas in the world. The practice takes place in the oil bearing Niger Delta region where huge balls of gas fires burning widely and noisily from the end of long stacks are a common sight.

The gas, a by-product of oil exploitation, is being burnt off because oil companies neither utilize nor recycle it. NNPC says that about 40 percent of gas produced in the country -- almost 23 billion cubic metres -- is burned annually.

The World Bank estimates that Nigeria loses about 2.5 billion dollars annually to gas flare.

Some of the largest multinational oil companies in the world -- including the U.K. and Dutch owned Shell, the French company Total, and the American companies Mobil and Chevron -- are responsible for the bulk of the scores of gas flares burning in Nigeria.

"Late last year, I was looking forward to Jan. 2008 with great expectation, hoping that the government will compel the oil companies to stop gas flaring," says Ibegwura. He remains disappointed that his expectations were not met. "It is already 2008, but the gas flares have not stopped they are still burning with fury."

Ibegwura -- whose Egi community has three gas flares and is surrounded by many more -- says he has seen how much damage gas flares have inflicted on his community in the last 40 years. Ibegwura is 76 years old.

"I am older than the gas flares in my community and I can tell you how much they have changed this place, he told IPS.

Ibegwura could not help looking back over the years with nostalgia. "Before gas flaring started here I remember very well that our environment was in its natural state. At that time the leaves were green, the air was clean, rain water was free of pollutants and it was safe to drink."

He says all that changed from the mid-1960s when multinational oil companies started flaring gas in the community as they drill for oil.

Bode Olufemi, of the Nigerian advocacy group Environmental Rights Action (ERA), stresses that oil has become a curse for the communities. "Gas flaring which has been on for close to five decades is one of the biggest environmental problems associated with oil exploration and exploitation in the Niger Delta," he told IPS.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, but in the oil bearing Niger Delta region where virtually all the oil comes from, local communities say they have not benefited from the billions of dollars made annually from oil revenue. Rather they say the oil industry is imposing a heavy environmental burden on them.

"The release of these cocktail of gases into the atmosphere, which the people inhale, makes them susceptible to acid rain and a lot of diseases like bronchitis and skin problems," says Olufemi.

Bashir Koledoye, technical director of Geoscience Solutions Limited, an oil consultancy firm based in Lagos, traces the problem of stopping the practice to the late 1950’s when oil exploitation started in Nigeria. "There were no plans to stop gas flaring from the onset. Originally the interest of the oil companies was oil, gas was an associated product that was not needed and had to be gotten rid off in order to get the oil," he told IPS.

He says it will be difficult to set a firm date to stop flaring given the huge investments required to set up facilities that can harness the large quantities of gas currently being flared.

"Talking as a professional and as a technical person, I can only tie a stop date to flaring to what is technically and financially viable," Koledoye said. "For now, we don’t have enough projects to utilize the gas produced with oil."

Koledoye warns that in attempting to stop gas flaring because of environmental concerns caution has to be exercised. "Stoppage of gas flaring might stop environmental damage, but it might also stop the oil business itself. This, many argue, is the very reason the Nigerian government is reluctant to take drastic measures to stop gas flaring.

Environmentalists remain furious. Olufemi says the continuous flaring of gas in the Niger Delta is a demonstration of the fact that the Nigerian government and multinational oil companies are insensitive to the plight of the people of the region. For him, drastic measures have to be taken to stop gas flaring. "When something like gas flaring has a direct impact on the health of the people, on their livelihood and their environment, what do you do? You’ve got to remove the problem so that the people can live a much healthier life."

After years of waiting for a stoppage to gas flaring, Ibegwura has turned philosophical. "I look forward to a day when gas flaring will stop. Everything that has a beginning must have an end."