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Ending gas flare in 2020, another promise amid scepticism

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The Group Managing Director of NNPC, Maikanti Baru PHOTO: TWITTER/NNPC

For the umpteenth time, the hope of ending gas flaring in the Niger Delta has, once again, been rekindled as the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), reaffirms Nigeria’s strategic plan to stop the menace by 2020.

But despite the renewed hope, environmental activists in the region are sceptical about government’s sincerity, especially in the light of the absence of significant infrastructure on the ground, as well as, past broken promises.

NNPC’s Group Managing Director, Dr. Maikanti Baru, while speaking recently on the theme: “Nigeria’s Gas Flare Commercialisation, Prospects & Opportunities,” during the 50th Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), in Houston, United States of America, reiterated Nigeria’s commitment to end routine gas flaring by 2020, significantly reduced the menace.

Baru explained that Nigeria achieved the feat by a steady reduction of existing flares through a combination of targeted policy interventions in the Gas Master Plan, as well as, the re-invigoration of the flare penalty through the 2016 Nigeria Gas Flare Commercialisation Programme (NGFCP), and through legislation, that is, ban on gas flaring via the recent Flare Gas (Prevention of Waste and Pollution) Regulations 2018.

It would be recalled that during the Nigeria Gas Competence Seminar in Abuja, the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, had noted that the large scale occurrences of oil spills and gas flaring in the country have created a poor public and global perception of the Nigerian petroleum industry.

According to him, poor environmental practices have damaged the relationships between operators and oil producing communities such that oil and gas production has become an unwelcome activity to the people of Niger Delta.

But after decades of persistent shift of deadlines to end gas flaring, environmental justice advocate, Nnimmo Bassey of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, told The Guardian that “it would be preposterous to believe the NNPC and the minister’s assertion that Nigeria will end gas flaring in 2020, when in reality there does not exist any feasible infrastructure on ground to justify this.

Besides, the history of ditching flare, our targeted dates abound, thus, trusting government at this point would tantamount to naivety.”

Bassey explained that, “gas flaring has been technically illegal in Nigeria since 1984 pursuant to Section 3 of the Associated Gas Reinjection Act, 1979.

But despite all proofs that the activities of oil companies was damaging the health of the people of the Niger Delta, reducing their crop production; bringing about premature deaths and cases of leukemia; proliferation of water-borne diseases and rise in coastal zones vulnerable to sea-level rise, the government has not shown any political will to end this environmentally monstrous act.”

According to him, continuous gas flaring depicts a case of economic carelessness; lack of care for the health of the people of the Niger Delta and tackling global warming.

“Certainly gas flare will not end in 2020. The World Bank itself said 2030. 2020 it is just a number that the minister placed on it. If it ends in that year I will be surprised. No, it is not possible. We don’t see any infrastructure on the ground for that to happen.

The only way it can happen is if they shut down oil production. There were efforts in the past to stop gas flaring; there were deadlines set many times; there was even a Gas Flare Prohibition Bill that was proposed.

As long as the fine for gas flaring is so small, that is not equivalent to the commercial cost of gas; the companies will have no incentive to stop gas flaring. I think basically it is the question of treating the Niger Delta as a no man’s land.

“They don’t care about the environment or the people. It is a well known fact that gas flaring impacts environment in terms of acidification of the soil and waters, leading to reduction of crop yield and acid rain; you have cancers, skin diseases and the element in the gas that is being flared is very toxic.

The gas is flared at very low efficiency. So, they also contribute to the soot whether they see it or not, the particulates in the air are very poisonous. We don’t place much care on the health of the people. Imagine life expectancy in the Niger Delta now is 41 years.

As long as the oil brings the money they can afford to waste the gas and waste the people along with it. How can we be burning trillion naira worth of gas every year and nobody cares just because crude oil is bringing the money that is needed to fund the budget. We don’t see any indication that communities in the Niger Delta will breathe fresh air anytime soon.” he said.

The HMEF chieftain stressed that the three new strategy to end flaring by 2020 notwithstanding, “sincerity without a clear roadmap is nothing other than wishful thinking or an attempt to hoodwink the poor people that have been agitating for the obnoxious act to stop.

It is really shameful that Nigeria should be flaring associated gas in this age when the negative impacts on individuals, communities and the global climate are so clearly known. Over the years, deadlines for the stoppage of gas flaring have been set through executive pronouncements and were never enforced.

The oil companies also engaged in deadline setting. At a point Exxon had a target date of 2004, Chevron 2006, while Shell had 2007 as they year they would snuff out their fiery furnaces. Did they?

“In the past government set deadlines at the end of 2007, at the end of 2008 and at the end of 2010. Actually, what happened in 2009 was comical.

Three deadlines were set in that year alone: while the Senate set a deadline of December 2010, the executive arm set December 2011 and the oil companies snidely slated theirs for 2013.

That was a clear illustration of the impunity and irresponsibility of the sector in the country. After that drama, I don’t remember hearing anything about deadlines until this one of 2020.
 
“We suspect that if we practiced resource democracy in Nigeria – meaning that local communities in which resources are found would have a say on what happens with such resources, including whether they should be exploited, by whom and for what, nobody would allow trillions of naira to go up in smoke annually while unleashing a cocktail of toxic pollutants into their environment.

Nigeria can carelessly flare gas for six decades because the gas furnaces are virtually deemed to be located on no man’s land. This explains why insecurity and conflicts are persistent in these communities, even as they are heavily militarized,” Bassey said.

He continued: “Gas flaring in any community is a big insult to the people. Every gas flare stack is a pointed statement of disregard for the people and their environment as well as a mark of disregard for their lives.

Treating any community with disrespect robs them of their dignity as well as their fundamental right to life. 

There is no justification for the burning of associated gas in the oil fields besides the flimsy reason given by one of the major polluters that the bad practice began when there was no market for natural gas in Nigeria and because of that the practice became routine.

Another reason offered by the oil companies is that the Nigerian government is not forthcoming with its own part of the funding needed to halt the menace.

Equally commenting on the new deadline, the President of Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Eric Omare, said the announcement was a mere political statement because conversion of gas to liquid projects such as the Odidi Edop contract in Delta State that was started in the early 2000, are yet to be put to use till now.

He argued that gas is still been flared within OML 42 area and the entirety of OML 30 in Delta State. In addition, he pointed out the Gbarabu/Ubie Gas Project in Bayelsa State is yet to be completed thus indicating that there are no indices on ground to show that government is committed to stop gas flaring in the next two years.

“We are concerned over government’s continuous shifting of deadlines to end gas flare. The reason why this has persisted is because government is an equity stakeholder in all oil operations in the Niger Delta and that is the reason why it keeps shifting the date and not even taking any step to punish the multinationals because if they punish the multinationals, government will contribute 60 per cent.

That is why some of us have advocated that the management of oil and gas must change from this equity share mode to a licensing mode. In licensing kind of oil operations, the government will only grant license, get its royalty and regulate the industry.

But in the case of Nigeria, government is both an operator and a regulator and that is why issues like gas flaring are on the front burner,” he said.

Omare further continued: “In some parts of the Niger Delta, people are experiencing strange illnesses. For example, in Gelegele, Ovia North East Local Council of Edo State, gas is flared at the centre of the community, and in that community, people have complained of having abnormal sleeping periods, miscarriages, abnormal life cycle and different illnesses.

We will continue with our non-violence agitation for government to stop gas flaring in the Niger Delta and address the question of resource ownership.

Recall that in the year 2000, the IYC embarked on operation climate change and the whole idea was to stop gas flaring in the whole of Niger Delta, it is most unfortunate that 19 years after Nigeria is still where it was in Year 2000.”

Apart from Gelegele, which many now refer to as “hell on earth” because of the billowing flames, Ebocha-Egbema, Obagi and Obiafu-Obrikom fields in Rivers State; Jones Creek in Delta State and other sites in Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa states have recorded numerous cases of residents being down with irregular heartbeat, acute leukaemia, aplastic anaemia, chronic bronchitis, painful breathing, aggravated asthma and premature mortality.

On a grim note, the 17 onshore gas flare points in Bayelsa State are estimated to cause 120, 000 asthma attacks, 4,960 respiratory illnesses among children and 49 premature deaths per year in the state.

Currently the Nigerian Gas Flare Commercialisation Programme estimates that there exist over 170 flare points that flare one billion standard cubic feet per day (1Bscfd) collectively. If harnessed, these could provide 450,000 MT of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for over four million Nigerian households.

Of these, 65 per cent of flare points are onshore, while 20 of the 89 onshore sites are large enough to independently sustain a 50MW gas turbine.

Similarly, the World Bank estimates that almost eight billion cubic metres of gas are being flared annually according to satellite data.

The Department of Petroleum Resources (DRP) in 2016 revealed that only 52 fields utilise above 90 per cent of associated gas produced, and that international oil companies are responsible for over 80 per cent of gas flared in the industry.

Similarly, a study by the National Coalition On Gas Flaring and Oil Spills in the Niger Delta (NACGOND) revealed that prior to gas flaring in Ughelli communities, the area was rich in medical herbs – both aquatic and upland.

The existence of herbal plants enables transfer of knowledge on the medicinal value of plants among the people.

The forests serve as the natural pharmaceutical gardens from which native medical practitioners collect most of their herbs, but these herbs have almost been depleted as a result of the constant heat.
 
NACGOND maintained that the herbs were depleting at great speed because most of the flare sites are further away from where the oil well head is located (to prevent fire outbreak in the locations), to distances of not more than 300 meters, preferably to forests, farmlands and swamps.

NACGOND further revealed that the two flare sites in the Kokori/Orogun oil and gas field located at Erhoike and Erhobaro that used to be marshy areas and forest respectively, and rich with herbal plants are now deserts.

While in Otu-Jeremi, which is less than 200 metres from the Utorogu Gas Plant, the heat radiating from the plant is also depleting the herbal plants.

NACGOND also drew attention to the fact that as a result of the illumination produced by the flares, the environment is lit up 24 hours each day. Consequently, animals that normally function at night find their natural habitat not accommodating, and are forced to move elsewhere or die.

For environmental rights activist, Ms. Ann Kio-Briggs, the people of the Niger Delta have “been talking about gas flaring for years, but the problem is that the government has never had the will and the desire to stop gas flaring because those that are dying are Niger Delta people.

That is why we are talking about restructuring because this will give the states power to insist on the stoppage of gas flaring. But do I think they will stop gas flaring in 2020, I don’t think so.

The fact that corrugated iron sheet gets corroded within a few months, points to the fact that gas flaring is death sentence that is hanging over Niger Delta people,” she said.

Citing a report by DPR, the convener, Ogba Environmental Initiative, Umeh Ibe, said it was disheartening that about 25 per cent of assessed gas flare penalties were either waived or defaulted.

He lamented that one of the reasons why government may not meet the 2020 target is because of the ridiculously low penalty for flaring, which has not been adjusted in spite of currency devaluations.

According to him, the penalty for flaring a thousand standard cubic feet per day was set at N10 in 1998, and is still that way till date.

To ensure that the country does not continue to shift the date for flare out, he implored the National Assembly to enact a law that will unequivocally stipulate deadline to end gas flares in the country.

He further urged the lawmakers to stipulate very strict penalty, including the forfeiture of licenses for failure to put out the flares in Niger Delta oilfields.
 
“The advise to government is that the Nigerian government should place more importance on the lives of the people of the Niger Delta over and above economic interest.

The reason why gas flaring continues is because government attaches more importance to the economic aspect of oil and its operation rather than the adverse effect on the environment, and the people of the Niger Delta.

Gas flaring affects the survival of the people of the Niger Delta, but a government that is in Abuja, very far from the Niger Delta is more interested in what it gets from crude oil export, rather than the survival of the people.

So, the government should shift its interest from economic interest to environmental protection and the survival of the people of the Niger Delta,” he added.
 
Etukudo Akpan, a rural farmer in Esit Udua in Eket Local Council is bothered “that grass cutters and porcupines that were abound in the bushes around are now very scarce because of the constant bright lights in our area. Hunters now embark on expeditions and return empty-handed.

In my farm, crops like cassava are now stunted and definitely the yield will be poor. It has been like this for years.

Initially I thought it was lack of fertiliser, but after participating in a seminar years back, I was made to understand that all these are the cumulative effect of gas flare.

 


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