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Agony, misery persist as incessant pipeline infernos remain untamed

By Kelvin Ebiri (Port Harcourt) Kingsley Jeremiah (Abuja)
29 March 2020   |   4:22 am
In the early hours of Sunday, March 15, 2020, residents of Abule Ado, a suburb of Nigeria’s commercial city, Lagos, woke to their daily lives, and never expected the unusual.

Living Close To Pipelines, A Ticking Time Bomb — Henshaw

In the early hours of Sunday, March 15, 2020, residents of Abule Ado, a suburb of Nigeria’s commercial city, Lagos, woke to their daily lives, and never expected the unusual. Christians among them were either in church or preparing for service, while others had set out for their daily activities. Little did they know that their lives or that of their loved ones would come to an abrupt end. But it did, and some of them were even buried in the rubbles of their razed down or damaged property.

What later happened to be pipeline explosion had, in one fell swoop claimed 23 lives, including children, and adults, whose bodies and some lucky ones were still being retrieved from the debris days after the incident.

The Abule-Ado incident was not the first time that an explosion from a breached pipeline would cut short the lives of innocent Nigerians. In 2006, a similar pipeline explosion left at least 200 Nigerians burnt beyond recognition around the Abule-Egba neighbourhood of Lagos State. Then, the Red Cross told The Guardian that the death toll could be as high as 500.

In January this year, another fire caused by an explosion from the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) vandalised pipeline left five persons dead, while over 150 residents were displaced, and 71 shops, 30 houses, a church auditorium, and 39 vehicles got burnt.

Barely two years after the 2006 Abule-Egba tragedy, on May 15, 2008, a pipeline explosion occurred at Ijegun Community in Lagos State, after a bulldozer reportedly struck an oil pipeline. Over 100 people were killed and scores injured in that inferno according to a report by French news outfit, Reuters.

In 2013, the News Agency of Nigeria reported that bulldozer that sparked the pipeline explosion was yet to be removed, adding that the burnt bulldozer, which was abandoned at Ijedodo Junction, near the palace of the traditional ruler of Ijegun, and a government primary and secondary schools had been covered by bushes and refuse.

On January 19, 2020, another NNPC oil pipeline explosion in the Ekoro area of Abule-Egba, Lagos State, also led to the death of five, while several property were destroyed.

IN what has become a pattern, each time these explosions occur, the Federal Government, through the NNPC usually dashes to the scenes and makes quick statements, and promises that are seldom kept until another oil pipeline fire explosion occurs.

Repeatedly, these explosions have been blamed on the activities of vandals, that perforate pipelines to steal petroleum products. The monthly financial and operational records of the NNPC usually have records, particularly the total number of points that were ruptured within the period under review.

Indeed, the March 15, 2020 explosion at Abule-Ado, has heightened concerns about the integrity of the vast network of crude oil and gas pipelines that traverse the country, particularly, in the Niger Delta.

The laying of pipelines across the entire Niger Delta, and other oil-producing states, as well as in other parts of the country began in the 1950s and continued up to the 1970s. The labyrinth of pipelines was essential to transport crude oil, condensate, and natural gas to the refineries, petrochemical and fertiliser plants, and also to electricity stations and industrial hubs.

Many of these existing pipelines, were originally constructed in sparsely populated areas. But, due to increased urbanisation and rising population, most of the areas that these pipelines pass through that were sparsely populated, have now become densely populated, and hosting thousands of residential structures, schools, worship centres, and shopping centres.

Over the years, the increasing proximity of these pipelines to human habitation has become a source of concern to safety advocates and environmental rights’ activists, especially in the Niger Delta, and they constantly express fear over the catastrophic effects of infernos that have occurred in different parts of the country due to leakages, ruptures, and perforation of the pipelines by crude oil thieves, or sundry criminal elements.

Experts’ opinions of factors that guarantee the integrity of pipelines vary, and they range from the quality of materials used; installation techniques; maintenance level, to how they are routinely changed. All these notwithstanding, oil companies have continued to maintain that encroachment into their right of way, and crude oil theft poses the biggest challenge to pipeline security in the region.

Two examples of how devastating pipeline accidents could be, occurred in Bue-Leh and Busuu communities in Khana Local Council of Rivers State and natives were forced to desert their homes for almost a decade, following oil spills, explosions, and fires from installations belonging to Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC).

Even though there has been increasing intolerance to oil exploration activities in the Niger Delta, the existence of aged pipelines, which cause extensive damage in the densely populated area whenever they are breached, strengthens the need for new regulations on pipelines.

THE NNPC recently claimed an infringement on the statutorily guaranteed 25-metre setback for its oil pipelines that stretches from Port Harcourt-Aba-Enugu-to Makurdi.

The corporation accused natives of these communities of building illegal structures and shanties on its right of way. The NNPC noted that while encroachment of its right of way was detrimental to the free flow of petroleum products, the combustible nature of petroleum even makes it more dangerous for those who have so elected to build shanties near the facility.

The corporation stated that the reason for the minimum 25-metre buffer for the pipeline was to allow sufficient space for maintenance, repairs, and replacements of pipelines as the need arises. This also guarantees that inhabitants of communities close to the pipelines are shielded from harm, in the event of a leakage, rupture or explosion.

Last year, it implored stakeholders in the Niger Delta region to support its efforts to curb the incessant vandalism of crude oil-bearing pipelines.Shell BP, which also expressed its dissatisfaction with the repeated sabotage of recently repaired pipelines, maintained that such acts expose the environment and people to renewed and worsening pollution.

“Since 2017, sabotage spill rate has risen steeply and crude oil theft from SPDC JV’s pipeline network averaged 11, 000 barrels per day in 2018, an increase of about 20 percent over the previous year. The number of sabotage-related spills increased in 2018 to 111 compared to 62 in 2017 and, since 2012, SPDC has removed more than 1,160 illegal theft points.”

The company claimed that in 2018, for example, it installed 70 kilometres of pipelines and 188 kilometres of flowlines. And over the last seven years, it had replaced approximately 1,300 kilometres distance of flowlines and pipelines.

The company said it is also collaborating with communities to effectively patrol pipelines’ rights-of-way through direct surveillance and GMoU surveillance, proactively engaging government security agencies to prevent crude theft and vandalism and carrying out awareness campaigns to educate community members, surveillance contractors and the general public of the requirements of the 1990 Pipeline Act, which prohibits any third-party activities 100ft from existing oil and gas right-of-way.

Shell recently revealed that it had deployed state-of-the-art high definition cameras for quick detection of, and response to crude oil spills from its facilities. The cameras will also help in tracking the vandalism of SPDC joint venture assets.

The cameras are said to be attached to specialised helicopters, which carry out daily overflight over Shell’s facilities. Speaking against the backdrop of the Abule-Ado incident, the Group General Manager, Group Public Affairs Division of NNPC, Dr. Kennie Obateru, told The Guardian that the vandalism was the basic reason for the incessant pipeline explosions, insisting that the integrity, as well as regular maintenance of the pipelines, have been a priority for the state-owned oil firm.

“A lot of our pipelines have been vandalised over the years, and we spend a lot to maintain those pipelines. It is in our best interest to keep our pipeline well maintained otherwise we would be losing products. Because of regular vandalism, we have had to change a lot of the pipeline,” Obateru said.

THE NNPC has over the years awarded multi-million dollar pipeline surveillance contracts to private security companies. Only last year, the award of a surveillance contract to an indigenous firm, Ocean Marine Solutions for the protection of the strategic 87-kilometre Trans Forcados Pipeline (TFP) valued at about $18.4m sparked serious controversy.

It is also important to point out that the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) had designed guidelines and procedure for the construction, operation, and maintenance of oil and gas pipelines and their ancillary facilities pursuant to the provision of section 31 of the Oil pipeline Act CAP 338 of the Law of the Federation of Nigeria 1990.

But the serial explosion witnessed over time have raised dust on the level of enforcement and compliance with these regulations, which have segments that outline procedures for prompt and expedient remedial actions aimed at ensuring the safety of the public and operator’s personnel; protection of property, and control of accidental discharge from the pipelines, as well as adequate personnel training for handling such emergencies.

The regulation equally states that, “the right of way should be maintained to have clear visibility and give reasonable access to maintenance crews. Clear access shall be maintained to valve locations and ditches shall be protected against the washout of the line.

“The right of way shall be regularly patrolled for prompt detection of any line break, encroachment, or any other development that may endanger the safety of the pipeline, and any such development shall be promptly reported to the nearest office of the Department of Petroleum Resources.”

Looking at the peculiar nature of the soil in Lagos State, some stakeholders are of the view that causes of some of these incidents may be far from vandalism, noting that 86.7 percent of failures were within human control and may result from corrosion, excavation damage, incorrect operation, material or welding failure, natural force damage or outside force damage.

With most of Nigeria’s pipeline being constructed in the 1970s and 1980s, Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) Foundation corroborated views of some of these stakeholders, noting further that older pipelines may be more susceptible to failure of certain kinds of threats, including external corrosion, rains or floods, excavation damage, defects, girth welds, seam welds or stress corrosion cracking.

ACCORDING to the director of the ecological think-tank, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nnimmo Bassey, ideally the security of pipelines ought to have been contemplated in the planning stages of pipelines’ laying, and such should be open to public debate.

Bassey said hazards associated with pipelines vary depending on the product being transported, the population, as well as natural resources located near the pipeline. According to him, crude oil spills from leaking, or ruptured pipelines have resulted in immense harm to human health, the environment, injuries or fatalities to aquatic lives, wildlife, and contamination of sources of drinking water.

He regretted that pipelines are often not properly protected, and are easily accessible to unauthorised persons as has been the experience in the Niger Delta in recent times.

“Each pipeline has a lifespan. So, when the lifespan of a pipeline is exhausted, that pipe ought to be replaced. When pipes are not replaced at the expiration of their lifespan, they have every right to breakdown. So, it is just a question of doing the right thing and ensuring that rules of installation and maintenance are not violated,” he said.

Bassey recalled that concerns about the integrity of pipelines and the devastating effect of compromised ones were some of the salient issues that gave impetus to the late foremost Niger Delta environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s campaign against oil exploration in Ogoni Land.

“It is a sad thing that in communities in the Niger Delta, you see oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing. Somewhere in Baylesa State, a pipeline has been licking gas for seven months now, and it has not been stopped and nobody seems to care about this. Our people are just exposed to extreme danger,” he said. He noted that aged pipelines are susceptible to damage, thus exposing communities, property, and the environment to a variety of dangers that may result in injuries or fatalities.

He regretted that regulatory agencies in the country have been lax in the discharge of their duties, stressing that there was the need for compliance with the best international pipeline standards to safeguard inhabitants of oil-producing communities to save them from the potential consequences of pipeline blowout.

“The NNPC can take pre-emptive actions, but the truth is that they are not doing that. One of the problems is that the DPR regulates these things; the state of the pipelines, oil spill and all that. It is time to have an independent body to oversee those safety issues in the oil sector. The DPR would have been okay, but it is part of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, and the NNPC is attached somehow to the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, and it is also a joint venture partner with the major oil operators. So, you have an operator being a regulator. It just does not work. The architecture does not allow for proper supervision,” he said.

BEYOND the recurring attacks by vandals, Chairman/CEO of International Energy Services (IES) Ltd, Diran Fawibe says that enough was not being done to protect pipelines in the country, just as he maintained that the NNPC, the Ministry of Environment, as well state governments, particularly departments that approve certain construction projects must be questioned regarding the negligence that has triggered some of these explosions.

Nigeria is not highly recommended for its practice of maintenance culture and has been severally accused of mismanaging very critical industry issues, especially given the level of environmental abuse that has been reported by oil-producing companies in the country including, state actors like the NNPC.

Fawibe, therefore, noted that allowing construction on the right of way, or locations close to pipeline infrastructure, without proactive measures, raises severe concerns on the part of the government, and indeed the enforcement of basic regulations.

FOR the former President of the Nigeria Association for Energy Economics (NAEE), and Professor of Petroleum Economics and Management, at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, Wunmi Iledare, the integrity and the maintenance of pipelines in the country remain the responsibility of the NNPC.

“The consequences of what is happening becomes the responsibility of the ministry or agencies that are regulating the sector. This is where to hold the Ministry of Environment, and the DPR accountable,” Iledare said.

Raising posers on the level of resources available to ensure that pipelines are adequately maintained, or replaced, Iledare noted that since these infrastructure are designed to be maintained, the prevailing infernos could be a direct fallout of lack of maintenance.

Like the refineries, which are failing to perform due to lack of maintenance, Iledare stated that the NNPC, and not the Federal Government should be held responsible for the poor state of oil pipelines since the state-owned oil firm is holding trust for the government.

“I am worried about the reoccurring situation and many other things in the sector. We are not making adequate use of what we have to solve some of these problems, but are too preoccupied with the revenue that is coming from oil, and not the good business that oil can provide.

“There are pipeline explosions in other countries, but the people are taking necessary measures. You can see what has been happening to our refineries over the years. The pipelines have been built for long without being maintained.

“Everything can be attributed to the inefficient and ineffective nature of the sector. We need a strong foundation before building. NNPC as an organisation must be allowed to function as a commercial entity, and we need to reform the industry to deal with these issues,” Iledare said.

AFTER the multiple explosions in 2006, the NNPC revealed plans to combat pipeline vandalism and explosion through the deployment of Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD), a new technology that buries pipelines very deep underground. One such contracts, was then awarded to Enikkom Construction. The plan was to bury the pipelines about 40 metres deep on the right of way. The project awarded to the company was to be completed in May 2013.

But that plan has remained elusive. Last year, the NNPC told The Guardian that it required funding to make the plan feasible, noting that it would gradually achieve its projections. Obateru, the GGM, Group Public Affairs Division of NNPC, shares a similar view with Iledare.

Obateru said: “When the pipelines were built, it was not envisaged that people will go there to vandalise, so the management took a decision that we need to bury the pipelines deeper than as it is presently so that it will be difficult for people to access it. But that needs planning because it would cost a lot of money. But that is being worked upon so that we can bury the pipelines deeper than it is right now.”

THE Chief Executive Officer, Mudiame International Limited, and Mudiame Welding Institute, Prof. Sunny Eromosele, believes that the NNPC has not done enough in protecting its pipeline.He said the state-owned oil company may consider publishing details of investigations into previous explosions, reveal other details of structure analysis, corrosion flow rate, aging pipeline, as well as the result of asset integrity test on the pipeline

Eromosele noted that the development wouldn’t have been persistent, if the NNPC had deployed proactive measures, stressing that the peculiarity of the incident to Nigeria remained shameful and a serious threat to the nation’s economy.

ON his part, human and environmental rights activist, Ken Henshaw said the devastating pipeline accidents recorded two decades ago at Jesse, in Delta State, as well as in Ogoni communities of Bue-Leh and Busuu remain a pointer that the people of the Niger Delta and other pipeline host communities across the country were sitting on a ticking time bomb.

“The tragic accident at Abule-Ado has manifested this clearly. We have a system of pipelines that run through centres of communities, people’s houses, worship centres and streets crisscrossing the creeks, swamps, and rivers of the Niger Delta. The people of the region are sitting on a time bomb. These are things that an environmental impact assessment should have highlighted that there is a potential that these pipes can explode. Such EIA was not done for various pipelines laid in the Niger Delta in the 1970s.

“We have had deadly blowouts before. Remember the Jesse blowout that killed over 2000. That was a pipeline explosion. If that pipeline was buried deep inside the earth, nobody would have tampered with it. In the Niger Delta, people climb the pipelines and walk to their farms. You can hear the pipelines vibrating. Beyond the pipelines rupturing and spilling oil into the farmlands and rivers, there is also the danger of them exploding, and it has happened before. There are two communities in Ogoni — Bue-Leh and Busuu. These two communities were sacked in 2007 because of a blowout. People don’t talk about it and the communities were never compensated,” he said.

Henshaw, who described the recent gas explosion that claimed several lives and damaged much property in Lagos as an unfortunate and tragic accident, emphasised that the country’s leadership ought to reconsider and rethink how pipelines are laid in the Niger Delta, and the entire country. He also suggested that an EIA should be reviewed periodically, based on existential realities.

“EIA should be compared to existing reality at every point in time. If a gas pipeline in Lagos was blown up, let us say an EIA was done 50 years ago. If that EIA was updated periodically, based on existing realities on the ground, a new EIA report would have flagged that potential danger. I do not think anybody should pass a ticking time bomb (pipeline) through a residential area. As a nation, we should have a rethink. We have seen pipelines being blown up when nobody tampered with them,” he said.

The executive director of We the People stressed that the government’s regulatory agencies must insist that pipelines should be buried deep down to the extent that it would be difficult to tamper with them. This is in addition to routine maintenance.

He described as hypocritical a situation whereby oil companies operating in Nigeria have one standard for Europe, Asia and America, and ironically, another standard for Nigeria. According to him, elsewhere in the world, pipelines are buried and taken away from human habitation.

“In other clime, pipelines are safe and mostly buried. They are usually unseen as they move crude oil from oil flow stations on land and offshore to refineries. And from the refineries to terminals, and through trailers to various retail outlets. The DPR and the NNPC have not followed this best global practice, and that is the problem we face here,” he said.

ON his part, the President of Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Eric Omare, stated that based on recent experiences, it was obvious that pipelines crisscrossing different parts of the Niger Delta portend danger to the health of the residents, and the environment.Omare, who observed that there have been cases of deliberate acts of vandalisation of pipelines, noted that there have also been lots of cases of ruptures arising from old pipelines.

He regretted that certain provisions of the Oil Pipeline Act that require that oil pipelines must be maintained regularly are being flagrantly disregarded. “Ordinarily, by the provisions of the Oil Pipeline Act, and other relevant laws, there is supposed to be an appreciable distance between oil pipeline and residential areas. I will suggest, moving forward, that anywhere a pipeline is passing through, residential and commercial activities should be restricted so that we can avert the experience we had in Lagos recently.

“I think that the best thing is to somehow involve the local community in the protection of the pipelines. When people see government assets as their own, they will protect their assets. The companies can also increase their corporate social responsibilities. The NNPC and other oil companies should involve communities in their operations. You cannot have a sufficient number of security men to take care of oil facilities,” he said.

ALSO commenting on the country’s alleged poor handling of oil pipelines, the Founder, Ogoni Solidarity Forum, Celestine Akpobari, said the decision to allow oil companies to lay pipeline across people’s homes, school premises, churches and on farmlands, shows how the government does not respect its citizens, or have regards for human life.

“No sane country lays pipeline the way we do here. The first set of pipeline that was laid over five decades ago in the Niger Delta has never been changed. The first time I saw pipelines being changed was in Jonkarama 4 in Rivers State. You could puncture it with your finger because of the extent of corrosion. There is no community better than the other in Niger Delta in terms of exposure to the dangers of the pipeline explosion. Every community that has pipeline pass through it is endangered because it is the same companies that are operating in the Niger Delta,” he said.

Akpobari noted that apart from Trans-Niger Delta Line that conveys crude to Bonny Terminal for export, no other oil production pipeline has been functional in Ogoni since 1993.

According to him, from time to time, Ogoni has witnessed explosions because of pressure at the wellheads abandoned by Shell BP. The former National Publicity Secretary of the Ijaw National Congress, Victor Burubo, wants government agencies in charge of pipeline safety regulations to regularly inspect and ensure the integrity of pipeline segments that have the potential to impact populated and developed areas in all parts of the country.

He noted that over the years, evidence abound that pipelines could harm human populations, resulting in injuries or fatalities. In addition to potential ecological damage and contamination of drinking water, particularly for people in riverine area, and those who depend on boreholes.

“Most people that build houses, churches, shops near these pipelines are taking a big risk. The NNPC and oil companies should enforce their rules. People cannot carry on as though there are no laws. There are a lot of pipelines that were located in the bush, but because of expansion, people and communities have expanded to where those pipelines are. People just build their house right on the pipeline right of way and I think this has to stop. All relevant laws need to be applied and enforced.”

SAFETY advocate and former President of the American Society of Safety Professionals, Herbert Nwaka, is blaming the incessant cases of oil pipeline explosion on the country’s disregard for safety.

Nwaka, who explained that Nigeria’s ranking among safety-conscious countries was very low, noted that while multinational oil corporations try to comply with safety standards, government and its agencies do not have so much awareness regarding safety. He noted that if laws regarding pipelines right of way were enforced and respected, Nigeria would have fewer pipeline explosions.

The safety expert decried a situation where communities and individuals continually fail to acknowledge and maintain certain distances from the oil pipeline for security and safety reasons. “You can appreciate that it is almost the opposite of what the standard says that people do. For as long as we continue to violate these laws, due to lack of implementation or obedience to the required norm, we will continue to have accidents and incidents of such magnitude we witnessed in Lagos. There isn’t much difference between what is obtainable outside this country and Nigeria. The difference is that government agencies regulate the activities of builders. There are places where they have mapped out as industrial areas, parks, residential, schools. The problem for us is that you can hardly tell the difference between residential areas and industrial areas. And so, the risk becomes even higher.

“There are regulatory agencies that have failed to stand up to what they should do. Then you begin to wonder when people like these get approval to build close to pipeline right of way. If you go near Shell pipeline, they will always insist that individuals are not supposed to build around the pipeline.

Shell will always ensure that compensations are paid and insist that certain distances must be maintained from the pipelines,” he said. Nwaka stated that safety professionals would continue to adhere to the responsibility of educating people on safety awareness, pointing out that people need to appreciate the dangers that are associated with living or farming near the pipelines’ right of way. According to him, when intense awareness is created, the rate of accidents and incidents would reduce drastically.

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