- By Jerome-Mario Utoa
LIKE history, which does not satisfy or dissatisfy people but accurately gives account of the past, if there is any recent account that satisfactorily and objectively portrayed the international oil companies, IOCs, operating in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria as architects of environmental degradation and pollution and promoters of health challenges in the Niger Delta region, it is the latest report by the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Pollution Commission. The Commission, which was set up in March 2019 by the Seriake Dickson-led government in the state to investigate the impact of years of oil spillage and environmental pollution in the state, unveiled its final report on May 16, 2023, at the House of Lords in London. That is after four years of work
Titled: ‘An environmental genocide: Counting the human cost of oil in Bayelsa, Nigeria’, the report, aside from documenting the over six decades of oil exploration and pollution in the state, indicated that several health studies have documented the connection between gas flaring and a range of chronic diseases, including bronchial, rheumatic, and eye conditions, along with hypertension, noting that constant inhalation of sulfur dioxide causes nose and throat irritation and shortness of breath, adding that prolonged exposure to flared gas has been associated with cancer and neurological, reproductive and developmental effect
Going through an extract of the report from the media, it is evident that aside from speaking to what has been on the minds of Niger Deltans and, of course, Nigerians as a whole, the latest report remains a broad-based piece of work that not only indicates intellect or genius but manifests a series of challenges arising from international oil companies non-compliance with international best practices in their crude oil exploration and production in the Niger Delta region and how such failures have dovetailed into a burden that presently confronts the people.
Essentially, even as the report is celebrated, there are also evidence-based reasons to believe that its scope, content, and revelations are neither new to the people of the region nor strange to researchers and development professionals. As an illustration, a peep into a 2022 study report titled: “Exposure to oil pollution and maternal outcomes: The Niger Delta prospective cohort study”, also says something similarly frightening and discouraging
The account, which was produced by Dr. Onome B. Oghenetega at Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, in collaboration with Professor Michael Okunlola, Professor Godson R. E. Ana, Dr.Oludare Morhason-Bello, and Professor Oladosu Ojengbede, and reported by the media, among other remarks, noted that ‘women residing in areas with high exposure to oil pollution in the Niger Delta are more prone to premature rupture of membranes and severe vaginal bleeding after childbirth as compared to women residing in areas with low exposure.
The above-referenced report, which used data collected from interviewer-administered questionnaires and a review of medical records from April 2018 to April 2019, examined the effect of maternal exposure to oil pollution on pregnancy outcomes in 1720 pregnant women aged 18–45 years and has without doubt made pollution prevention pivotal to achieving maternal death reduction in the region
It is equally important to underline that in as much as the Niger Delta region, going by reports, is currently dotted with about 139 gas flare locations spread across onshore and offshore oil fields where gas, which constitutes about 11 per cent of the total gas produced, is flared, this ugly narrative or report shall continue to be a recurring decimal. As noted in my earlier piece, a tour by boat to the creeks and coastal communities of Warri South West and Warri North Local Government Areas of Delta State will amply reveal that the much anticipated end in sight of gas flaring is actually not in sight. In the same manner, a journey by road from Warri via Eku-Abraka to Agbor and another road trip from Warri through Ughelli down to Ogwuashi Ukwu in Aniocha Local Government of the state show an environment where people cannot properly breathe as it is littered by gas flaring points
Separate from the health implications of flared gases for humanity, their adverse impact on the nation’s economy is equally weighty. For instance, a parallel report published a while ago underlined that about 888 million standard cubic feet of gas were flared daily in 2017. The flared gas, it added, was sufficient to light up Africa, or sub-Saharan Africa, generate 2.5 gigawatts, GW, of power, produce 50 million barrels of oil equivalent, BOE, or produce 600,000 metric tons of liquefied petroleum gas, LPG, per year, produce 22 million tons of carbon dioxide, CO2, feed two-three liquefied natural gas, LNG, trains, generate 300,000 jobs, be able to attract $3.5 billion in investment into Nigeria, and has a $350 million carbon credit value’. This is an illustrative pointer as to why the nation economically grumbles and stumble
In addition to the above itemised health and economic losses inherent in gas flaring, experts believe that the major reason for the flaring of gases is that when crude oil is extracted from onshore and offshore oil wells, it brings with it raw natural gas to the surface, and where natural gas transportation, pipelines, and infrastructure are lacking, like in the case of Nigeria, this gas is instead burned off or flared as a waste product as this is the easiest option. This has been going on since the 1950s, when crude oil was first discovered in commercial quantities in Nigeria
Also disturbing is the awareness that while Nigeria and Nigerians persist in encountering gas flaring in the country, successful administrations in the country have made both feeble and deformed attempts to get it arrested, but all to no avail. Let’s spread out the particulars of this claim. In 2016, the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration enacted Gas Flare Prohibition and Punishment, an act that, among other things, made provisions to prohibit gas flaring in any oil and gas production operation, blocks, fields, onshore or offshore, and gas facility treatment plants in Nigeria
On Monday, September 2, 2018, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of State for Petroleum (as he then was), while speaking at the Buyers Forum/Stakeholders Engagement organised by the Gas Aggregation Company of Nigeria in Abuja, among other things, remarked thus: “I have said to the Department of Petroleum Resources, beginning from next year (2019 emphasis added), we are going to get quite frantic about this (ending gas flaring in Nigeria) and companies that cannot meet with extended periods – the issue is not how much you can pay in terms of fines for gas flaring, the issue is that you would not produce. We need to begin to look at the foreclosure of license
That threat has since ended, as the Minister did little or nothing to get the threat actualised. The administration also launched the now-abandoned National Gas Flare Commercialisation Programme, NGFCP, a programme, according to the Federal Government, aimed at achieving the flare-out agenda and zero routine gas flaring in Nigeria by 2020. Again, like a regular trademark, it failed. Away from Buhari’s administration, in 1979, the then Federal Government, in a similar style, came up with the Associated Gas Re-injection Act, which summarily prohibited gas flaring and also fixed the flare-out deadline for January 1, 1984. It failed to align with the leadership philosophy of the country. Similar feeble and deformed attempts were made in 2003, 2006 and 2008
In the same style and span, precisely on July 2, 2009, the Nigerian Senate passed the Gas Flaring (Prohibition and Punishment) Bill 2009 (SB 126) into law, fixing the flare-out deadline for December 31, 2010, a date that slowly but inevitably failed. Not stopping at this point, the Federal Government made another attempt in this direction by coming up with the Petroleum Industry Bill, which fixed the flare-out deadline for 2012
The same Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB, got protracted till 2021, when it completed its gestation and was subsequently signed into law by President Buhari as the Petroleum Industry Act, PIA. Despite this movement to save the industry, the environment, and its people, the Niger Delta challenge remains. So the question is: If this legion of laws and acts cannot save the people of the region, who will save the people from the ongoing environmental genocide’? The answer to the above question is in the womb of time
AUTHOR: Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy, SEJA, Lagos