Nigeria: 63 Years After, Gas Flares Still Killing, Polluting Niger Delta Region

Despite longstanding laws against gas flaring, the burning of natural gas during oil extraction has remained the major cause of mortality in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. ANAYO ONUKWUGHA writes that since the practice involves carbon dioxide and sulphur outputs, the continuous inhaling of this poisonous fumes emanating from such oil fields still poses serious health consequences for inhabitants of host communities.

The debate on gas flaring in Nigeria dates as far back as when we joined the ranks of oil producing countries in 1958, when its first oil field came on stream, producing 5,100 barrels per day. As far back as 1960, there were already concerns expressed about the dangers of flaring gas, and the need to put same in check. Following these concerns, the federal government fixed the initial deadline for ending gas flaring for January 1984. That target was never achieved and over the years, it has been shifted successively to 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2020 .

Gas flares are killing crops, polluting water and damaging human health. Though the federal government promised to tackle the problem, new data shows flaring has even gone up.

When LEADERSHIP Sunday visited communities where these deadly activities are carried out, it observed that flames as tall as 10-storey buildings burn day and night, and in fact, the heat from these fires is neither soft nor warm, it’s fierce and prickly.

Aggrived members of host communities told our correspondent that the constant noise sends wild animals fleeing, and that people must shout during conversation to be heard over the roaring flames. “Fields of crops, once green, have turned yellow or stopped growing entirely. The village no longer enjoys the respite of cool or darkness of night.” a respondent, Ekenwa Itokwen. said.

Itokwen , an indigene of Ebedei and a farmer who lives beside the constant flame of a gas flare owing to the fact that the Nigerian operator Platform Petroleum erected a flow station adjacent to his house said, “We are living under the shade of hazard because of this flaring”.

He said,” I have been and still worried because the air pollutants released by gas flaring have been linked to cancer and lung damage, as well as neurological and reproductive problems.

Another resident of the area, madam Juliet Osamor, a retiree said, “The gas flaring caused a rise in soil temperature and declining crop yields for those of us that a farmers. “You plant, and before you know it, everything is dead, and all of your investment is wasted. Mos of us have suddenly become hypertensive. It is a disaster.”

My dear, worst is that , “During rainy season, the rainwater is visibly black. It is not consumable . In fact, you don’t need a microscope, to see what am complaining about” Osamor said, inspecting the sample of water her neighbour collected.

The rainwater, he according to her, corroded her zinc roof which she renovated a few years ago. “My dear, holes appeared, and rotted the wood inside

She said, “My dear, as you can see , two million people live within 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) of a gas flare. Below the flames, oil is being extracted. With the oil comes gas — considered by the oil industry to be a dangerous waste product to burned off in a process called gas flaring.”

LEADERSHIP Sunday gathered that while Nigeria remains among the top gas flaring countries in the World, statistics from the Ministry of Environment indicates that oil companies in Nigeria flare over 313.0m scf of gas annually, which results in about 16.5m tonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. This is without prejudice to the effort of the Nigerian LNG Limited which is the country’s arrowhead in the attempt to curb gas flaring, as it is reported to have helped reduce Nigeria’s gas flaring profile from 65.0 per cent to below 25.0 per cent.

The federal government had in its usual flexible approach, signed into law the Flare Gas (Prevention of Waste and Pollution) Regulation, 2018 to prohibit gas flaring. LEADERSHIP Sunday gathered that the regulation allows for gas to be flared, provided a permit is obtained from the President who doubles as the Minister of Petroleum, and a fine not exceeding $2.0 (approximately #700 depending on the prevailing exchange rate) per 1000 scf of gas flared is paid.

Unfortunately, the relevant government agencies tasked with this mandates are unable to ascertain the level of gas being flared by oil companies. Sadly, these oil companies are the determinants of the volume of gas flared by them. In effect, it is what the oil they report that qualifies as the volume of gas flared.

Records obtained by LEADERSHIP Sunday indicates that multinational companies operating in the oil rich region are responsible for the flaring of over 80 percent of gas produced by them , resulting also in the death of crops and pollution of air and water.

The federal government, in 2016 approved the Nigerian Gas Flare Commercialisation Programme (NGFCP) . It was designed as a strategy to implement the policy objective aimed at eliminating gas flares with potentially enormous multiplier and development outcomes for Nigeria.

The major goal was to eliminate gas flaring through technical and commercial but sustainable gas utilisation projects developed by competent third party investors who will be invited to participate in a competitive and transparent bid process.

The commercialisation approach has been considered from legal, technical, economic, commercial and developmental standpoints. It is a unique and historic opportunity to attract major investment in economically viable gas flare capture projects, whilst permanently addressing a 60 year environmental problem in Nigeria.

The NGFCP is also expected to offer flare gas for sale through a transparent and competitive bidding process. A structure has been devised to provide project bankability for the flare gas buyers, which is essential to the success of the programme.

However, this air pollution has remained the major cause of soot popularly referred to as ‘Black Soot’ in Port Harcourt and it’s environs for more than four years.

Port Harcourt, the beautiful, serene city that once had a peaceful mien is now a pitiful cynosure of environmental pollution, worrisomely described as a dark city engulfed in dark, hazy and hazardous soot. The reason for this is not far fetched. For some years now, there has been a literal black cloud hanging over the city, from office spaces to worship centres, from schools to fast food restaurants, from hospitals to markets, from public transport systems to even private ones, almost every living and non-living thing within the city has engaged with the strange black soot at one point of the other. People’s clothes covered in soot, streets are covered in soot, even residents’ bed sheets are covered in soot.

Black soot first appeared in the atmosphere in and around Rivers State in September 2016, causing panic among residents of the state.

Apart from the common effects of air pollution which include irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, black soot has been associated with upper respiratory infections such as asthma, pneumonia, coronary heart disease, bronchitis, heart disease and some other respiratory illnesses.

They are detrimental to human health as they take part in gas exchange during each breath. Health experts say the black soot particularly has a severe level of toxicity and is capable of causing cancer which may lead to premature death.

Research has also shown that many premature deaths in the oil-rich region are directly related to soot in the environment. On their part, environmentalists say the soot has been found to contain sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which cause acid rain when combined with moisture.

Speaking on the impact of gas flaring in the region, an environmental right activists, Celestine Akpobari, said it is regrettable that President Muhammadu Buhari failed to fulfill his promise of ending gas flaring by the year 2020.

Akpobari said: “Gas must have been first flared in 1956 at Oloibiri when oil was discovered in commercial quantity. About 8 billion cubic meters of gas is flared annually in Nigeria. This puts the country’s gas production at 75 per cent, and when calculated in monetary terms, the country looses about $2.5 billion.

He said, “In 2005, a Federal High Court sitting in Benin declared gas flaring illegal in a case between Mr Jonah Gbemre of Iwherekan community in Delta State and Shell. Sadly, till date, that judgment has not been reversed.

“Between November 7 to 18, 2016 , particularly during the COP 22 at Marrakech, Norocco, President Muhammadu Buhari promised that Nigeria will stop at nothing to end gas flarig by 2020.

” Unfortunately, that magic year just ended with President Buhari not being able to fulfill his promise to end the unhealthy act of cooking the atmosphere which does not only destroy the environment but leave residents to suffer from variety of respiratory problems..”

He said the region has been under serious threat since the 50s, when oil and gas exploration activities commenced in commercial quantity in the region.

The former executive director , Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Dr. Godwin Ojo, the persistent air pollution from gas flaring and other activities of multinational oil companies has caused a serious environmental challenge.

Ojo blamed the activities of these multi-national oil companies for the decrease in oxygen supply to the ocean, a situation , which thus, ,makes it difficult for plants to survive. and contributes to climate change.

Only recently, the minister of state for Petroleum Resources, Mr Timipre Sylva announced that the country is on course to end gas flaring by 2025. This is coming after Nigeria rose from sixth position to the top with a total gas flared in the world.

However, no official of the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), which is the department of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) saddled with the responsibility to implement (NGFCP) agreed to speakg on why the programme is yet to come into fruition.

Given the very obvious dangers to the environment and human health occasioned by gas flaring, the question that begs for answer is: why is the Nigerian government continually shifting the deadline to end gas flaring in Nigeria since 1984?

The question becomes even more agitating when you realise that expropriation of crude oil is achievable with minimal flaring of gas or without flaring gas at all. The only reason it would seem most of the oil companies continuously flare gas rather than toe the path of reinjecting same or channelling it into more productive use, is down to the cost of acquiring the needed equipment and/or facility to trap the gas with a view to using same for more productive venture.

Apparently, the cost of acquiring the needed equipment/facilities to trap gas rather than flare it is too much of a sacrifice to make even after over 60 years of oil exploration. The opportunity cost seems to be the welfare and wellbeing of the millions of people in host communities whose lives and means of livelihood are being destroyed by the constant flaring of gas.

Perhaps, it makes sense to keep flaring the gas so long as the monies keep flowing in and the wheel of the economy is constantly greased, regardless of the cost to lives and the environment being devastated. If there were ever any doubts, it is now obvious that the 2020 deadline set by the federal government to end gas flaring in Nigeria was merely hot air not backed by political will.

Whilst it is hoped that the federal government, being a signatory to the Global Gas Flaring Partnership (GGFP) principles aiming at a flare-out date of 2030, will not in its shifting spree, shift the deadline to end gas flaring in Nigeria beyond 2030, however, going by the antecedent of previous unachieved deadlines, it is safe to say that gas flaring will not be over in Nigeria until the gas flaring actually stops.

There is a need for the relevant agencies to scale up environmental and biological monitoring of air pollutants. The implication of a possible relationship between gas-flaring and hypertension brings to the fore the need for interventions to regulate gas-flaring activities.


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