Wednesday, 6th December 2023

Stamp out crude oil theft but save environment

By Editorial Board
24 July 2023   |   4:00 am
The zeal currently being displayed by Nigerian security agencies to stamp out the nefarious acts of stealing the country’s crude oil can hardly be faulted, considering the humongous public fund being lost daily on account of the theft.

[FILES] Ghana-bound vessel destroyed by Tompolo’s outfit, Tantina Security Services, for stealing oil.

The zeal currently being displayed by Nigerian security agencies to stamp out the nefarious acts of stealing the country’s crude oil can hardly be faulted, considering the humongous public fund being lost daily on account of the theft. Indeed, unless drastic measures are taken to confront the thieves, there may be no end to the criminality. The culprits are brazen and daring, ready for the worst consequence. To them, the end justifies the means. Nevertheless, the measure of burning down vessels laden with stolen oil may not altogether be wholesome in the ultimate pursuit of bringing oil thieves to appropriate justice. Apart from the destruction of evidence that the burning constitutes, the point has also been made, validly, that the measure is destructive to the environment, and thus injurious to the health of Nigerians. Besides, citizens need assurance that adequate investigation has been made to lawfully convict all those involved in oil theft, including the masterminds, who are usually not on the ship. So far, security agencies have not offered this assurance in their confrontations with oil thieves and before burning the affected vessels.

For the second time in roughly two months, security operatives in the Niger Delta have blown up two cargo vessels bearing large quantities of stolen crude, thereby causing the country huge financial loss and colossal damage to the environment. Nigerians are calling on the government to put a stop to this waste at a time when every dime is needed to address economic challenges.

On July 7, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPCL) announced that its private security contractor, Tantita Security Services, intercepted a vessel laden with 800,000 litres of stolen crude valued at $86.8 million. It said both the vessel and its content were destroyed.

Chief Communications Officer of the oil company, Garba Deen Muhammad, said that acting on intelligence, the vessel, MT TURA II (IMO number: 6620462), owned by a Nigerian Registered Company, HOLAB MARITIME SERVICES LIMITED with Registration Number RC813311 was intercepted on its way to Cameroun with the Captain and Crew on board. MT TURA II was destroyed that Friday, July 7, 2023, in the Escravos River in Warri South-West Local Government Area of Delta State.

Earlier, in May this year, the military, in partnership with Tantita Security Services similarly announced that a barge was impounded in Warri, Delta State, loaded with over 600 barrels of crude oil from illegal bunkering.

The barge, which was reported to convey the crude oil to a jetty, was spotted 20 miles off the coast of Warri, where it was destroyed. Operators of the theft were linked to a corporate organisation certified by the Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority (NMDPRA) to provide services within the confines of lifting sludge.

Crude oil theft in the Niger Delta has gone unchecked for too long, leading to huge losses in revenues that should have accrued to the country. The Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) said in December 2022 that the country lost 619.7 million barrels of crude oil valued at N16.25 trillion ($46.16 billion) to theft between 2009 and 2020.

Orji Ogbonnaya, the executive secretary of NEITI, said the volume of crude oil stolen represented a loss of over 140 thousand barrels per day. He added that between 2009 and 2018, the country lost 4.2 billion litres of petroleum products from refineries valued at $1.84 billion.

Curiously, all these happened despite presence of a gamut of military and security detachments lining the coastal waters where crude is produced, leading to accusations that some military top brass and other highly placed public officials are either engaged in the business of crude oil theft or they simply acquiesce for pecuniary benefit. Apart from the Nigerian Navy that is constitutionally mandated to police the country’s territorial waters, the Marine Police, Joint Military Task Force, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency and other private security outfits are all struggling for space, offering services that are paid for by the government, oil companies and the NNPCL. Yet, the criminal enterprise of crude theft has not abated.

According to NNPCL in 2022, criminals steal about 437,000 barrels of oil daily in Nigeria, calculated at $100 per barrels that amounted to over $43.7m per day.

It was to curtail pilfering of crude oil that the Federal Government, through the NNPC Limited, awarded over N4.5 billion monthly pipeline surveillance contract to former leader of Movement for the Emancipation of Niger-Delta (MEND), Government Ekpemupolo, popularly known as Tompolo, and other contractors in the Niger Delta.

While the arrest and destruction of the two vessels in May and July serve as evidence that action is ongoing, it is of concern that crude oil theft is taking place in the Niger Delta on such a large scale. In the comity of oil producing countries, Nigeria has earned the unenviable record of a producer that cannot secure her crude. It is given that crude from every locality has its own identity, which owners jealously protect.

But that does not seem to be the case with the Nigerian crude. Who are those buying Nigeria’s stolen crude; who are the enablers sponsoring the thieves; who are those charged with manning the Pump Head where crude is discharged into vessels?  Nigerians demand answers to these questions from NNPCL, the entity that is vested with the mandate to manage Nigeria’s crude deposit. With the identity of the vessels known and the captains and crew apprehended, prosecution should no longer be a matter of hush-hush. Let there be disclosures.

Nigerians, therefore, hope that measures so far taken by security agencies are genuine and not a mere stunt. It is worrisome that vessels come into Nigeria’s territorial waters unnoticed, spend about seven days to load crude oil without being detected. The situation suggests that some syndicate high up there is involved, and the government cannot justifiably claim to be unaware of what is going on. The Tinubu administration should do things differently, set up a committee to investigate, unravel the mystery; and punish all offenders.

Equally disturbing is the scorched-earth tactics the NNPCL and Tantita Security Services have adopted in disposing of stolen crude. The two instances where both crude and vessels are blown up have scant regard for the environment and attendant impact on flora and fauna. The JTF claimed it was a way of sending “warning signals” to prospective oil thieves. Former Chief of Defence Staff, Lucky Irabor, once claimed that such practice is in line with “rules of engagement,” adding that no investigation was needed to take such action. Similarly, the NNPCL issued a statement that “destroying vessels involved in transporting stolen crude oil is of paramount importance,” adding that it would sustain the momentum in the war against crude oil theft until it is brought to a halt.

However, at a time the country is looking for money to meet health, education, transportation, and infrastructure needs, it appears wasteful that huge amounts of crude will be set alight willy-nilly.  The security agencies should seek more acceptable ways of punishing criminals without allowing the country and the environment to be vicariously punished.

The Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) has condemned the burning of vessels with stolen crude oil; and the House of Representatives also cautioned security agencies to desist further from destroying vessels containing stolen crude oil, saying the practice is having a negative impact on the environment. The HOMEF said the manner the vessels were destroyed was wrong and harmful to the environment and human lives. We cannot agree more.

This is the time to expose all those who have collaborated with criminals to invade the Niger Delta to steal crude. There is no way the economic plan for the country, as enunciated by President Bola Tinubu will be achieved if revenue leakages such as crude oil theft are not blocked. In this era of Climate Change, it is equally important that the government pays attention to the environment. There are safer and saner ways to punish crime.