22 Environmental issues in extractive industries transparency

This paper was first published in 2012[1]

Reckless crude oil extraction is violence visited on the environment and people today and an unconscionable draining of the wealth of future generations.[2] Transparency in the extractive sector is not complete without taking cognisance of the impacts operators and operations have on the environment. Transparency issues must include measures of the extent to which operators adhere to environmental and industry standards. As this chapter focuses on the oil fields of the Niger Delta, we declare that unless an audit of the environmental degradation of the region is carried out and a master plan for the detoxification of the environment is designed and implemented, talk of transparency in the sector will remain at best superficial.

Environmental rights must be seen as the human rights that they are. They are also the most commonly trampled upon rights and this results in a loss of ability of the people to enjoy any reasonable level of wellbeing in their land. The destruction of the Niger Delta environment calls for emergency-scale restoration actions to stem the tide of loss of lives, loss of biodiversity and loss of ethical values needed to build resilient societies. The large-scale degradation of the environment cannot be compensated for by token community projects. The so-called community development projects do not often address the problems. Shell, for instance, claims to have spent US$68 million in community development projects in 2007, but its share of the expenditure was US$20 million.[3] Note: because of a jaundiced joint venture arrangement, the Nigerian state picks up the bulk of the bills while Shell and its cohorts claim the credit. The entire expenditure, as is the case with the gas flare fines, are accounted for as part of the production cost of crude. The communities are short-changed on all counts. This needs to be addressed.

Continued degradation in the form of oil spills and gas flaring and dumping of wastes render the Niger Delta extremely degraded. The area is also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change with a projected loss of 50 percent ability to produce cereals by the year 2020 and an 80 percent loss by 2050.[4] This is arguably worse than any armed conflict. TNCs must be reined in, held accountable for their historical debts to the region and made to take their heavy footprint off the land. For a start we demand a halt to any new oil field development in the region. The Niger Delta people will be better off as they can have clean creeks in which to fish and swim and also enjoy dark nights without explosive annoyances of toxic gas flares. The urgency of this resolution is more acute when we see that with peak oil, and the obvious shifts in energy sources that will happen, the future of crude oil is already history.

The Nigerian National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA)[5] announced in October 2009 that 2,122 oil spill incidents were recorded between 2006 and 2009. They estimated the amount of crude oil loss at 66,696 barrels. There were 252 incidents of spill in 2006; 597 incidents in 2007; 927 cases in 2008 while between January and June 2009, 346 cases were recorded.[6] The Nigerian government documented 6,817 spills between 1976 and 2,000, which according to analysts amount to one spill a day over 25 years. A 2007 report by Nigerian scientists and the World Conservation Union concludes that an estimated 1.5 million tons of oil has spilled in the Niger Delta ecosystem over the past 50 years, representing about 50 times the estimated volume spilled in the Exxon Valdez oil spill.’

It must be stressed that NEITI should not only count the income that comes from the sales of crude oil and gas. It is essential to count the costs of the negative impacts and inactions. Unless this is done, the figures arrived at in the balance books are largely off the mark.

It is for good reasons that the Niger Delta region of Nigeria has the reputation of being one of the most polluted places on earth. The observable evidence is enough to sustain that record and very little is in the public view with regard to detailed auditing of the devastation. The most comprehensive environmental audit of the region may be the Niger Delta Environmental Survey (NDES) commissioned by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC or Shell) in the 1990s. That outcome of that survey has not been made public as the sponsor, Shell, chose to lock the reports up in their vaults.[7]

The crude path

The path of crude oil development has been soaked in human blood across the world and there is little to differentiate one oil company from the other when weighed on the scale of environmental responsiveness. Crude oil devastates both the environment and the unskilled local workers/contractors who are routinely exposed to the toxic substance. People exposed to crude, for example when there is a spill, are susceptible to suffering from digestive disorders as well as neurological problems.

Crude oil has remained a cheap energy source, even with the rising price in the market, principally because the environmental costs are overlooked in determining its value. The true price of crude oil has never been computed. The true costs would cover environmental, human, social, moral and security aspects of life in the oil communities. The environmental costs due to loss of intrinsic environmental services are incalculable in monetary terms. Oil spills; salinisation and siltation of water bodies; deforestation, gas flares and discharge of toxic wastes into the environment have made the oil communities death traps. When the environment is taken away from a people, you have effectively taken life away from them.[8]

Oil companies often open canals from the sea for the purpose of taking their equipment inland for extraction of crude oil. Canalisation brings salt water from the ocean and completely alters the ecosystems and overturns the means of survival of coastal communities. The people are forced to depend on the rain for potable water. However, because of insufficient rainwater harvesting systems, the people depend on wastewater from oil companies’ facilities as evidenced at the Awoye community in Ondo State. The Awoye people know that the wastewater from the Chevron facility is toxic and have been told so by officials of the oil mogul. They, however, people insist that although they know that the water is poisoning them, they have no option but to drink it as they could not drink salt water. A glass of this toxic water looks like a glass of tea.[9]

Apart from the Biafra-Nigeria civil war[10], no other region in Nigeria has suffered the sort of sustained and inhuman aggression as the Niger Delta region. Nigeria recently celebrated 50 years of oil in the country. That could more aptly be termed 50 years of oil aggression in the Niger Delta. This assault has reached peaks in cases such as: the burning of Umuechem[11]; the massacre at Odi[12] and Odioma; the devastation of Ogoni and the extra-judicial murders of the peoples’ heroes.

When asked to speak on the link between liberal globalisation and the acceleration of the destruction of the environment, Fidel Castro responded as follows, ‘all efforts to preserve the environment are incompatible with the economic system imposed on the world, that ruthless neoliberal globalisation with the impositions and conditions by which the IMF sacrifices billions of people’s health, education and social security…’[13] When asked whether the response to injustice in the world should be despair, he deduced that, ‘The objective conditions, the sufferings of the immense majority of those people create the subjective conditions for the task of awareness-building.’ The quote is long and worth the space, ‘Everything is related: illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, hunger, illness and disease; a lack of drinking water, housing, electricity; desertification, climate change, the disappearance of forests, floods, hurricanes, droughts, erosion, biodiversity loss, plagues and other tragedies…’[14]

The conflicts are inevitably tied to the struggle for access to limited and receding resources, and the consequences of environmental degradation: deforestation, dislocation from territories, spills, gas flaring, ill-health, and poverty. In a context where the peoples of the region depend largely on environmental resources (potable water from the streams, creeks and rivers; fuel wood for energy; herbs for medicine; the land for agricultural produce and the creeks for fishing), environmental degradation has become a wholesale harbinger of death.

Crude footprints

The crude extraction chain can be said to commence at the exploratory stages when seismic lines are cut through forests and farmlands and creeks. Shell alone, in the two states of Bayelsa and Rivers, is said to own 56,000 kilometres of seismic lines. These lines mean losses of huge swaths of forests and farmlands. The corporations grab these lands courtesy of an obnoxious Land Use Act that the military set in place in 1978. The exploratory lines open the land for invaders and opportunists of all sorts who magnify the loss of biodiversity and environmental services in such areas. The seismic phase also involves the use of explosives such as dynamite in test holes on the land and in the creeks. These further lead to losses of animal and aquatic lives.

The drilling stage involves the use of radioactive substances that are difficult to dispose of as they come out in wastewater as well as in drilling mud. These ought to be handled with utmost diligence, but it is believed that these are recklessly discharged into the Niger Delta environment, posing grave health hazards to the unsuspecting populations.

Oil spills are a frequent occurrence in the region. The corporations are good at claiming that these result mainly from sabotage and/or vandalism. This claim must be taken as an afterthought because even before the rise of armed confrontations in the region, over 300 incidents of spills were officially recorded each year while independent estimates were put at over 1,000 incidents. The spills and the manner of their cleanups are arguably violent attacks on the people. Due to a lack of knowledge, some communities have compounded this problem by insisting that they must receive compensation before any attempt is made at cleaning up such spills. They also often insist that the clean-up contracts should be given to local contractors who do not have the skills or the equipment to safely and adequately execute such tasks. This way, local people are exposed to danger due to haphazard handling of the toxic substances. And, because the people are involved with such cleanups they end up having to live with shoddy jobs that leave the environment worse than it ought to be. Cases have been recorded where forests have been set on fire in a bid to clean spills. Water bodies have equally been set ablaze in futile efforts to clean spills. Lives have been lost in spill related fires when community people use faulty machines to attempt to pump crude oils from spill sites.[15]

Some health impacts[16] related with oil spills and chemical substances used in the industry and to which the people of the Niger Delta are exposed on a continuous basis include:

  • Blurred vision, eye-reddening
  • Headaches
  • Sore and bleeding
  • Asthma, bronchitis and other breathing problems
  • Increased risk of tuberculosis
  • Ear infections
  • Skin irritation and rashes
  • Cancer (skin, lips, mouth, lungs)
  • Menstrual problems, miscarriages, stillbirth, and birth defects
  • Ulcers
  • Heart attack
  • Damage to liver, kidneys, etc.
  • Lungs and throat infections

The challenge of the offshore

The many environmental conflicts that have occurred onshore over the decades appear to the encouraging the major oil companies to place their bets on offshore fields. However, the offshore has its peculiar challenges. Fields are being found in deeper waters and there are already technological challenges in handling accidents. A clear example can be seen in the April 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

That spill revealed some problems of transparency in the oil industry. It revealed that operators cut costs, care less about safety of the environment and evade the truth about their activities, among others. It also revealed that BP did not conduct genuine environment impact studies/analyses for the projects. They also did not have adequate oil spill response plans and mechanisms.

In terms of transparency, we saw the spill volumes increasing over time, as the company was forced to be more realistic with the figures. It was a shameful display of corporate duplicity and unwillingness to be open.

The figures released by BP changed as follows: 1,000 barrels per day as at 25 April, 5,000 barrels per day by April 28; 12,000— 25,000 barrels by May 27; 20,000 – 50,000 barrels per day by early June. The figures eventually hovered around 100,000 barrels a day.

The impacts on livelihoods in Nigeria are much more than what would be recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, for example. This is so because the communities depend almost entirely on the basic environment. When streams and ponds are polluted, ­potable water availability becomes a critical matter. Burnt forests mean denial of medicinal herbs and food. Fish and other aquatic populations die, and farmers lose their sources of subsistence as well as income because of soil destruction.

Some examples of spills in the Niger Delta[17]:

  • The Escravos spill of 1978 in which 300,000 barrels of crude oil was spilled into the coastal waters
  • Shell’s 1978 spill caused by tank failure at Forcados Terminal in which 580,000 barrels were spewed
  • Texaco’s (Chevron) Funima-5 offshore blow out in 1980 that released 400,000 barrels of oil
  • Mobil’s spill at Idoho in 1998 with a reported release of 40,000 barrels of crude oil.
  • The Shell in 2008 spill at Ikot Ada Udoh spill where a capped well failed and spilled an unreported amount of crude oil for months before it was stopped
  • AGIP oil spills at Kalaba, Bayelsa State raged for over two months starting from February 2009 before it was stopped.
  • Exxon oil spilled more than one million gallons (about 28,570 barrels) of crude oil from a ruptured pipeline in Akwa Ibom State starting from 1 May 2010. The spill went on for seven days before it was stopped. As we speak, local people are still suffering from the impacts of the spill.
  • Massive spills at Bodo, Ogoni, 2008/2009

We can also point at the oil spills at Gokana (2007), Aleibiri (1998) and Goi (2004) all attended with fire outbreaks that destroyed water bodies and forests. A list of spill sites would take up a whole book. By official records (NOSDRA) there are about 300 oil spills every year. In addition, we are informed that there are about 2400 oil spill sites that are yet to be attended to. This fact underlines the falsehood in industry propaganda when they claim that they do engage in clean-up of spills. If they do, how did 2400 spills accumulate?

Professor Richard Steiner of the University of Alaska made a comparative analysis of the practices of a particular company operating in Nigeria, Shell Petroleum Development Company, with international standards to prevent and control pipeline oil spills and observed that Throughout 50 years of oil production, this ecologically productive region has suffered extensive habitat degradation, forest clearing, toxic discharges, dredging and filling, and significant alteration by extensive road and pipeline construction from the petroleum industry. Of particular concern in the Niger Delta are the frequent and extensive oil spills that have occurred. Spills are under-reported, but independent estimates are that at least 115,000 barrels (15,000 tons) of oil are spilled into the Delta each year, making the Niger Delta one of the most oil-impacted ecosystems in the world.’[18]

Professor Steiner also observed that oil spills have a significant impact on the natural resources upon which many poor Niger Delta communities depend. Drinking water is polluted, fishing and farming are significantly impacted, and ecosystems are degraded. Oil spills significantly affect the health and food security of rural people living near oil facilities. Additionally, oil spills and associated impacts of oil and gas operations have seriously impacted the biodiversity and environmental integrity of the Niger Delta. Besides these direct environmental impacts and although the industry regularly claim that most of their oil spills are caused by sabotage, it is believed that the rate of spills per length of pipeline in the Niger Delta is much higher than is the case in developed countries such as the US. The conclusion reached by Steiner is that ‘This, and other evidence, suggests that oil companies operating in the Niger Delta are not employing internationally recognised standards to prevent and control pipeline oil spills.’[19]

Shell announced a spill of ‘less than 40,000 barrels’ of crude oil escaping its pipe while loading an oil vessel at its Bonga Floating Production, Storage and Offloading (FPSO) facility on 20 December 2011. The company announced it was fighting the spills, deploying two aircrafts and five vessels in the effort. In a bid to assure the world that the spill was insignificant, the company also announced that over a couple of days fifty per cent of the spilled crude had naturally dissipated – meaning the crude evaporated or sank beneath the waves. The company’s chemical assault on the slick was thus to fight a negligible errant sheen.

Satellite maps and photos published by SkyTruth helped to ensure that the world had a somewhat independent information on the spill apart from what Shell was announcing. Shell was largely in control of what people knew and said of the spill. Even officials of the Nigerian Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) did not come up with anything different from what the oil major claimed. The agency apparently swallowed the line Shell had cast in the waters that this spill was the largest when limited to a span of time not going back beyond a decade. This was a masterstroke by Shell’s information managers, a coup of huge proportions. They almost succeeded in their game of enforcing a collective amnesia and deflecting focus to Exxon whose 1998 New Year’s spill Shell appropriated as a benchmark.

The oil companies are masters at understating (and underreporting) the amounts of crude they release into the Niger Delta environment. We remind ourselves here that Shell spilled 570,000 barrels of crude oil at its Forcados terminal in 1979.

There was no independently verified record of what transpired at the Bonga FPSO. How much crude was actually spilled? What was the actual cause of the spill? What chemicals were used in tackling the spill? What were the impacts on the endemic Bonga fish species in the area and what does that mean to the food chain?

Before the fundamental JIV was carried out, Shell got busy flying government officials and journalists over the Bonga region to prove that they had contained the spill and that other reported spills were not from the Bonga FPSO. Reports from over-Bonga-spill-flights indicated that government officials refused to dance to beats from Shell’s bongo and conga drums. Fishermen and community environmental monitors had informed Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and others that they spotted crude oil in Exxon’s Inanga (name of endemic fish species) field off the coast of Akwa Ibom State, as well as in the Bisangbene River at Vanish Island in Odioma and St Nicholas areas of Bayelsa State. During the flight Shell reportedly sought to assure government officials that the thick crude they sighted on the waters was from a ship in the neighbourhood of the Bonga FPSO and not from Shell’s activities. The officials reportedly retorted that they could not exonerate Shell and blame the accused vessel from the air. Thorough investigations are needed, they rightly said.

The period also saw spills recorded at Otumara in Escravos area of Delta State where locals said it had been ongoing for onward of two weeks without official records. More crude oil spills also hit River Ramos close to Escravos at about the same time.

The season of spills also had one from AGIP’s facility at Okpotuwari in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. AGIP officials visited the spill location on 27 December 2011 but told the community people that they would return the following week to stop the spill. For days the crude spewed unchecked into the Okpotuwari environment. The people had no respite from these and other environmental assaults but the officials of AGIP and other oil companies enjoyed their New Year vacation undisturbed.

Fires on the waters

Almost a month after the Shell spill, an explosion occurred on a gas well drilling rig at Chevron’s Apoi North field on 16 January 2012.[20] That explosion killed two workers. Chevron, like Shell, offered initial information and updates on the incident, assuring that steps were being taken to contain and mitigate the disaster. Like Shell also this clearly was an half-hearted public relations gesture and tapered out even while the inferno raged.

Located a mere ten kilometres off the Bayelsa coast, and in fairly shallow waters, the glow and roars of hell competed with the numerous gas flares onshore. The impacts on the Koluama 1 and 2 communities, Ikebiri 1, 2 and 3 communities among others, cannot be dismissed or denied. The evidence floated and still floats on the waters. Dead fish including dolphins, and at least a whale, indicate that what has occurred was not a minor incident but a catastrophe.

As Chief Christian Munghanbofa-Akpele, chairman, Council of Chiefs, Koluama 1, told Environmental Rights Action monitors, this accident has raised serious concerns. He said ‘We suffered a similar thing in 1980 when there was another major oil spill from Funiwa 5; just about 300 metres from the site that is on fire now; the Apoi North.’ He asked ‘Must we continue to have the negative impacts from Chevron’s operation in our environment, without corresponding benefits?’

At Ikebiri 2, Mrs. Suoyo Matthew lamented:

It is very unfortunate that we are experiencing all these environmental devastation because of crude oil exploration. We have been suffering from series of oil spills from AGIP’s facility. Now, just see what the recent incident from Chevron facility has brought us. Look at my body. I have blisters all over my skin. I feel very sad and uncomfortable these days. Just because of crude oil and gas exploitation around us we are facing a kind of ecological war; our livelihood and health are jeopardized. I really lack words to express myself. Government should help us address this issue and save us from poverty and life threatening activities of oil companies operating in our environment.[21]

One full month passed before Chevron started drilling a relief well in order to plug the damaged one. Soon after they commenced drilling, the raging inferno ceased. Community people reported that they could not see the usual ‘orange glow’ of the fire from the night of 2 March.

Chevron does not know, and cannot explain why and how the fire got extinguished. They hazard a guess that rocks may have fallen into the damaged well and plugged it. The dangers associated with this murky state of affairs is that since the fire has not been stopped in a controlled and efficient way, we cannot be sure there is no further leakage or that there would be no further eruption or explosion. While Chevron claims that there is no further leakage of gas, community monitors report that there are bubbles on the waters and noxious odour from the area.

There are many lessons to be learned from these incidents. First of all we learn that offshore oil and gas activities are accident-prone. A catalogue of these has been logged from around the world. We learn also that even in shallow waters the oil companies lack the readiness and capacity to handle these accidents expeditiously and effectively. The response mechanisms by the oil companies as well as government’s regulatory agencies are dismal and the government agencies appear to be tied to the apron strings of the companies and lack independent capacity to act. This replicates around the world because of the revolving chair relationship between the two.

We learn also that there is an embarrassing lack of seriousness on the part of our public officials. The minister with oversight visited the Chevron accident scene and impacted communities one full month after the explosion.

The neglect of communities is legendary. When the Chevron fire impacted the communities, a protest of Koluama community women to Chevron’s offices in Warri, Delta State, only resulted in the sending of token relief materials to some of the communities. Meanwhile fundamental issues of environmental remediation and restoration are not on the cards.

It is this sort of thinking that allows criminal exploitation and environmental despoliations to go unchallenged. The United Nations Environment Programme’s report on the Ogoni environment remains unattended to, several months after its submission. That report is evidence of the lack of care of both the corporations and the government about the environment and the people. It echoes the cries of the Ogoni people and the peoples of the Niger Delta at large for a cleaning of the mess accumulated over the years of oil exploitation in the region. It is not too much to demand an investment of a bit of the capital accumulated from exploiting the communities and their environments for over more than half a century. When oil no longer earns reasonable revenue, will anyone invest in cleaning the oil field communities? Sooner than we expect, the world will move away from dependence on crude oil. But the pollution will not go away unless they are cleaned.

Selective transparency

The Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) is a vital tool in the hands of both the Nigerian government and the Nigerian people for ensuring transparency in the extractive sector. With the already published audits it has become clear that the oil and gas sector is particularly opaque. This situation is not peculiar to Nigeria as the sector fights hard to ensure that their books and deals are not subject to public scrutiny. Their usual plea is that revealing exactly how much they pay to certain governments may constitute a breach of business secrets that may lower their competitiveness in the field. While claiming a right to information blackout, the companies insist that they believe in the principles of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. However, selective transparency is no transparency.

For a moment let us examine recent manoeuvrings by companies operating in the extractive sector as they squirm and resist basic transparency. Much of 2011 was spent by transnational corporations listed on the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in wrangling over clauses in a new financial reform aimed at ensuring that these entities discontinue operations on the well-worn path of double ‘transparency’ standards.

The US government proposed that mining, oil and gas companies who trade their shares on the American stock exchange should issue an annual report detailing the ‘type and total amount’ of payments they make to foreign governments. In the proposed amendment, Section 1504 adds Section 13(q) to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and this has kept the sector on their toes. This order is seen to be necessary if President Obama’s Executive / EITI passes. In addition, the API does not ‘believe it is necessary for the rules to specifically list other types of fees that would be subject to disclosure. We note that fees related to entry into, or retention of, licenses or concessions can be competitively sensitive information.’

The continuation of gas flaring in Nigeria has been aided by the jaundiced transparency in the sector. When the companies say they are doing everything possible to stop flaring they can be understood to be playing mere public relations. While they claim to wish to end the illegal act, these same companies are busy raising hurdles on the path of ending the unhealthy practice.

For example, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron are said to be deliberately frustrating government efforts to install real-time measurement equipment at 166 gas points to accurately meter the amount of gas being produced in the country. According to the Directorate of Petroleum Resources (DPR) only ten out of the 166 points have had the measuring equipment installed. This posture compounds the lack of transparency in the Nigerian oil and gas sector, where the true amount of crude oil extracted in the oilfields remains a mystery. Figures of gas being produced and how much is actually flared are mere guesses.

There should be no surprise that the World Bank states that gas flaring decreased in 2009 in Nigeria from 21.3 billion cubic metres to 15.2 billion cubic metres while Shell informs that their flares went up 33 per cent in 2010 over their 2009 figure. This clearly shows that whatever may have been the decrease in 2009 was not likely a result of the activities of the oil companies to curb the practice.

In terms of gas utilisation, more power plants would have come on stream by now, but investors complain that the flaring oil majors have generally refused to cooperate with them and deny them access to the gas that is currently being flared. In fact three years after thirteen companies prequalified by the Nigerian government to gain access to and harness gas from 180 identified onshore and offshore flare sites, the oil companies have not granted these companies the needed access.

Polluting bush refineries of the Niger Delta

Dire situations often inspire invention. Biafra was blockaded and starved of access to resources ranging from domestic goods to industrial products during the civil war. Necessity thrust upon Biafra the need to innovate and to create. It was in this mode that the nascent nation built and ran crude oil refineries and also produced missiles or bombs then known as ‘ogbunigwe’ or ‘Ojukwu buckets’. These efforts were driven by the inescapable urge for survival.

In the past few years there has been an emergence of what many term ‘bush refineries’[22] in the oil fields of the Niger Delta. These are spots in the swamps and creeks where local people, mostly youths, produce petroleum products using crude oil obtained from either already leaking pipelines or from spots broken into by crude oil thieves.

These refineries pose serious health hazards to their operators as they have no clue about the toxic nature of the products and do not have any sort of protective clothes, boots or gloves. These young folks bear the extreme heat from the flames of the belching dragons in order to produce litres of semi-refined products that pose additional threats to the end users. Many deaths related to kerosene explosions have been recorded and these may have resulted from the use of the uncontrolled products from these contraptions.

The dire poverty in the oil region is often cited as justification for the existence of these bush refineries. Regrettably, the response from the government, as well as from the political parties seeking control of the federal government after elections next month, is nothing beyond the provision of physical infrastructures in the region. While these are essential, the most urgent need of the region, and indeed the entire nation, is the detoxification of our environment. As we have often argued, the average Nigerian will take care of her basic needs if the physical environment supports her livelihood-generation efforts. This means that the urgent first step is an urgent audit of the environmental situation of the region as could possibly be exemplified by the assessment of Ogoni environment by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). More on this below.

A factor that could be perpetuating the bush refineries is the dislocation of the social infrastructure of the region. This includes the loss of communality, the rise of individualism and the deep corruption that has been entrenched by key players in the oil industry sector. These systemic ruptures must be structurally addressed.

We cannot ignore the efforts of security agencies in combating the menace of the illegal refineries. But merely combat posturing only gives the trigger-happy security men cover for extortion and further human rights abuses of an already traumatised people. However, it must be acknowledged that the continued operation of these bush refineries is a disservice to the local people and a huge shame to the government.

Going by figures from the Joint Military Taskforce operating in the Niger Delta, hundreds of these bush refineries have been destroyed. By mid-December 2009, the JTF reported that there were over 1,000 ‘illegal refineries’ in the Niger Delta and that within two months to that time they had destroyed 600 of the refineries in different parts of the region. Sarkin Bello, the General who commanded the JTF at that time, made an important point that just as other ills had started in one part of the nation and spread to other parts, there was a chance that such refineries may pop up in other areas of the country – especially those through which oil pipelines passed.

Months later, Sarkin Belo bemoaned the resurgence of the bush refineries, as was widely reported in the mass media. It was not exactly surprising when a fortnight ago, the JTF announced that they had detected 500 bush refineries in the Mbiama area on the border between Rivers and Bayelsa States. It was not surprising because the refineries have been operating more or less brazenly with law enforcement agents sometimes accused of exacting tolls or illegal taxes from the operators. So they probably destroyed 600 in 2009 and the ghosts of the levelled plants resurrected soon as the security agents left the scene. These bush fires are huge tourist attractions for foreign journalists and you do not need a space rocket to gain access to their locations.

We have heard some politicians claim that the bush refineries cannot be eliminated because the youths cannot find alternative avenues of employment. Quite specious, that form of reasoning. It is illustrative of the ineptitude of persons in power who ought to provide employment and keep people away from practices that are harmful to them, the environment and the economy.

There are untold dangers related to operating these bush refineries. The poor youths who work these refineries, covered in crude, standing in the searing heat and continually inhaling toxic elements can hardly be in a position to enjoy the fruit of their labour. These refineries may put some kobo in their pockets, but they are essentially condemned to poor health and truncated lives.

A point that we must underscore is the fact that despite the large number of these bush refineries and the fact that they refine products that are illegally obtained, their operations do not lead to a reduction of the crude oil output of Nigeria. Why is this? It is simple to see.

Large-scale illegal bunkering with international dimensions has gone on unchecked for decades and many well-connected persons may be benefiting from it. The large-scale crude oil theft in Nigeria has gone on alongside and continual meeting of the production quota of the nation. The bush refiners may have been inspired by the fact that between the oil wells and the export terminals is a bottomless pit in which thievery is highly rewarded. Efforts at halting the petty stealing for bush refining will not be successful if the cancer of mass oil theft by the high and mighty is not tackled.

Rather than fight the menace in a structural way, oil companies seeking ways to heap the blame on victims have turned these refineries into some spots for pollution journalism tourism by flying foreign and local press corps over them.

The increasing pollution from these bush refineries must be tackled. So far the response of government has been to bomb and ransack the locations. The results have not been effective because not long after their demolitions, they come back to life. A more effective means of tackling the menace may be for them to be recognised as micro refineries and for regulatory measures to be put in place to ensure standards. That way, the crude would have to be bought and the refining standards would be enforced. This would help stop the spate of explosions that occur when ill-refined products are used in cook-stoves as well as halt the wastes and dumping of products into the environment simply because they were stolen in the first place.

Agonizing Ogoni Environment

When the Ogoni people demanded a halt to the unwholesome acts of the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC or Shell) and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) the government called them names and unleashed security agents to maim, rape and murder and hound many into exile.

The report on the pollution of Ogoni land prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was released on 4 August 2011. It marks the first official confirmation that there is a major tragedy on our hands. UNEP’s report unequivocally shows that the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) under the prescient leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa was not crying wolf when it maintained that grave injustice was being inflicted on Ogoniland.

The report largely says what has been known and said before. But this is official and very valuable. When Shell doled out the funds for the study, they claimed they did so on the basis of the polluter-pays principle. True. Shell polluted Ogoniland, just as they and other companies have done and continue to do all over the Niger Delta.

Claims by Shell that a majority of the oil spills in Ogoni are caused by interference by local people flies in the face of the observations in the UNEP report. The report says the bush refineries, for example, became prominent from 2007. Obviously, one of the conclusions should have been that with livelihoods utterly destroyed, some of the people had to find a means of survival and chose this unfortunate and illegal trade. With UNEP’s obvious care not to antagonise Shell in the report, this path was not pursued.

In a critique of the UNEP report, Prof Richard Steiner of Oasis Earth organisation, Alaska states:

The UNEP report devotes several pages (161-166) specifically to artisanal refining at the Bodo West oilfield, and correctly reports an unfortunate increase in such between 2007 and 2011. However, in this analysis of oil pollution in this region, UNEP entirely ignores the other much larger source of oil spilled into this same region in that same time period— the twin ruptures of the Trans Niger Pipeline (TNP) caused by SPDC negligence in 2008 and 2009.Together these spills contributed between 250,000 – 350,000 barrels of oil into this system, orders of magnitude more than illegal refining. Much of the oil at Bodo West area likely derived from the TNP Bodo spills.[23]

How does this compare to the volume of spills from artisanal refineries?

Steiner also wonders why the UNEP study report says that no single clear and continuous source of spilled oil was observed or reported during UNEP’s site visits,’ whereas the massive spills at Bodo occurred at the time of the study and the combined spill volume may well exceed that of the Exxon Valdez that occurred in Alaska in 1989.

A significant problem that may scuttle efforts at acceptable cleanup of Ogoni land is the lack of capacity or unwillingness of Nigerian regulatory agencies to enforce laws and to act independently. Their independence is of course affected by the fact that Shell has infiltrated the petroleum ministry in a deep and total way.[24] If government is serious about regulating the sector it will need to ensure that those called to make this happen are not connected to Shell’s umbilical cord.

How for instance could government officials certify that oil spills have been cleared up and impacted areas remediated whereas the contrary is the case? According to UNEP there are 10 ‘remediation completed’ sites showing ongoing pollution in Ogoni. Shell’s spill management was also called to question as they use incompetent contractors for jobs that require knowledge, skills and equipment.

The confirmation that Shell has poor diligence in its oil spill responses and that our regulatory agencies endorse the pattern raises serious issues about the situation in other parts of the Niger Delta where this impunity continues unabated.

Other matters arising from the UNEP report that call for immediate follow-up include the inconclusive study on public health issues even though a gamut of medical records were surveyed. Same about vegetation and also rainwater that the people turn to in the face of living besides polluted rivers, creeks and waterways.

We now have official confirmation that the Ogoni people are drinking water polluted with benzene 900 times above World Health Organisation’s standards. We also now know that the ground is polluted up to a depth of five metres at some places. We know that there cancer causing elements in the water and in the air. We also know that there are toxic wastes dumped in unlined pits in Ogoni land. These issues are replicated all over the Niger Delta. But they are heightened in those areas because you must factor in the highly toxic gas flares.

Ogoni land (read Niger Delta) ranks as one of the most polluted places on earth. What is urgently needed is for the Federal government to declare an environmental state of emergency there. Ecological problems do not observe community or political boundaries. How the government handles this case will tell a lot about who we are as a people.

Gas flaring and other wastes

Extractive businesses impact the environment at every stage of their operations. That is, impacts begin to occur and to manifest right from the exploratory stages except where such is being carried out through remote sensing including from satellites in space. However, wherever such explorations are terrestrial, their impacts are undeniable.

In an environment where regulations are weak and enforcements even weaker, it does not require much analysis to see that our environment is degraded to a large degree by the myriad toxic wastes and chemicals dumped into the land and waterways on a regular basis. One estimate has it that at least 600,000 barrels of water are dumped into the Niger Delta environment daily through oil production activities.

­Health problems from millions of litres of produced water, drilling mud, etc., include those emanating from the pollution of the food chain and waters. For example, ingestion of polluted food and water from the swamps cause vomiting, dizziness, stomach ache and cough. There is a case where within two months of dumping toxic wastes in a community, 93 people died from what the people termed mysterious illnesses.There are also heightened and poisonous concentrations of lead, zinc and mercury, etc., in these pollutants.[25].

Another key by-product of oil production is associated gas or gas that comes out of the oil wells as crude oil is being extracted. This gas can be harnessed for utilisation for power generation or other uses, it can be re-injected into the wells or it can be set on fire when brought to the surface of the earth. The first two options require some investment while the last option requires virtually no costs on the part of the oil companies. The burning of this gas is generally termed gas flaring. The truth is that this is cheap to the companies but costly to the environment and to the communities living in them. In other words, when oil companies flare gas, they are simply avoiding responsibility and externalising the costs to the environment and the local people. Without taking these externalised costs into account, the true cost of oil cannot be known. By externalising these costs the companies and partner governments pile up ecological debt and poison the people and the environment.

Environmental and financial responsibility is clearly linked in the case of gas flares. Nigeria ranks second to Russia as a global gas flarer in terms of volume and by share of global gas flared Nigeria’s contribution is 16 percent[26]. The estimated amount of gas Nigeria flares in 2,000 was put at 17.2 billion cubic metres[27] while other estimates place this at 23 billion cubic metres. It is important to note that gas flaring has been illegal in Nigeria since 1984 with the introduction of the Gas Re-injection Act. From the time that law came into effect, fines were introduced for gas flared and even then continuous gas flaring was to be permitted on a case-by-case basis by the responsible federal minister. Following a suit brought by Jonah Gbemre against Shell Development Petroleum Company for flaring gas in Iwerekhan community, a High Court sitting in Benin City declared on 14 November 2005 that gas flaring was both illegal and an affront to the human rights of the people and should be halted forthwith.That court order has neither been vacated nor obeyed as we write.

Over the years deadlines for the stoppage of gas flaring have been set through executive pronouncements and were never enforced. By the end of 2009 three deadlines were on the table, illustrating the impunity and irresponsibility of the sector in the country. While the Senate set a deadline of December 2010, the Executive arm set December 2011 and the oil companies snidely stated that only a 2013 deadline could be tenable. Later the same month both industry and government operators began to signal that having a deadline was of no use as they intend to create gas utilisation projects that they will seek to register for carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

In a rather unfortunate turn of events, the then director of the Directorate of Petroleum Resources (DPR) stated in a newspaper interview that the cessation of gas flaring would ruin the Nigerian economy.

Gas flares release a bunch of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere besides vast amounts of green house gases. . In addition to these, due to the inefficient combustion of the flames, a high amount of soothe is continually released into the atmosphere adding to the pollution problems. Gas flares are known to cause a variety of cancers, skin diseases, blood disorders, bronchitis, asthma and others.

In economic terms, Nigeria wastes US$2.5 billion in gas flares annually. We note that Nigeria has a huge reserve of natural gas and that efforts have been made to utilise some of those. Oil sector operators have equally tried to obfuscate matters by claiming to be using associated gas when indeed they are utilising non-associated gas from purely gas fields. A case in point is Chevron’s futile effort to pass off the majority of the gas in their West African Gas Pipeline project. It has been estimated that not up to 20 percent of the gas conveyed by the pipeline is associated gas.

Before the shifting of deadlines game became more intense, oil corporations appeared to be serious about ending the obnoxious act of gas flaring. At a point Exxon had a target date of 2004, Chevron 2006 and Shell pointed at 2007. It must be noted that the World Bank prepared a frequently cited study of 2004 that documented the scope of the problem of gas flaring in Nigeria. By the time the carbon spin doctors began to speculate on carbon trading, the World Bank, which positions itself to be the major climate finance bank, is now keen on benefiting from the politics of gas flares. The bank is working with Nigeria to ensure that other countries can offset their emissions by investing in ending gas flaring in Nigeria. This is a clear case of why market mechanisms provide false solutions to climate change, potentially compound the problems on the ground and allow polluters to keep polluting. It is estimated that the World Bank will grab 13 percent of carbon offsets transactions. In the Nigerian case, the bank would make US$10/ton of gas that would have otherwise been flared.

The above scenario indicates that the environment is a blind spot when oil industry costs are computed. Key players and banks working in the sector focus on the profit and the environmental costs and social, economic and political costs are not countenanced.

Reserving our comments

Nigeria’s crude oil reserve is put at 36 billion barrels while there is an estimated reserve of 100 -170 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In 2004 Shell overstated their reserves by 4.47 billion barrels and this was faulted by the US exchange commission and was fined. In 2008 Shell reviewed its reserves downwards by 200 million barrels. On what basis does Nigeria check the transparency in this sector when basic information cannot be trusted?

The unreliability of crude oil reserve figures is further compounded by the rapacious stealing of crude oil going on daily with obvious complicity of local and international operators. The crude is stolen with sophisticated equipment, not mere buckets and shovels. The stolen crude is sold internationally and not to local refineries that chronically work at sub-optimal levels.

Although figures for stolen crude cannot be ascertained, we have had public figures speculate that as much as the amount that is officially exported daily is also shipped illegally. The governor of Delta State of Nigeria, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, has been quoted as saying that oil companies were involved in the illegal activities. He also said that the international community was complicit in the thefts since there was a ready market for the stolen crude.[28]For Mr Dimeji Bankole, speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, about half of Nigeria’s crude oil production is stolen. He summed up that if that estimate is correct, it means that Nigerian crude may run out sooner than expected.[29] Other analysts believe that Nigeria is actually losing as much crude oil as it is selling officially through the connivance of security agencies that are meant to halt such practices. Through this the country is estimated to lose US$1.6 billion to oil thieves annually. Reports allege that some top naval officers, serving and retired, have private pipelines that run from the Port Harcourt area to Eket and that these pipes serve as conduits through which they siphon crude oil, load onto vessels and ship to refineries in other shores including South Africa.[30]

It is obvious that the fact that Nigeria depends mostly on crude oil and gas for revenue, and because governments over the years have grown away from engaging in productive activities, this sector has been allowed a free hand to inflict a reign of terror on the environment. NEITI needs to address this gap and expand the definition of transparency in the extractive industry to include environmental responsibility and not stay restricted to fiscal concerns. This should be extended to areas where solid minerals have been extracted and are being extracted. The Jos tin mines are still crying for remediation. The toxic artisanal mines of Zamfara State are still crying for comprehensive attention. The coal mines of Enugu have shockingly been turned into refuse dumps at places.

NEITI would render a great service if it helps Nigeria to see whether her accounting books are in the black or red. The conclusion of this chapter is that there is a huge transparency black hole in the sector. Beyond just having this reality is the urgent need to audit the environment and urgently embark on a Niger Delta and indeed a national environmental restoration.

  1. Bassey, Nnimmo (2012). 'Beyond a Blackhole: Environmental Issues in Extractive Industries Transparency'. In Musa Abutudu, Dauda Garuba & Kolawole Banwo (Eds.), Beyond Compliance; Deepening the Quality Assurance. Mechanisms of the EITI Process in Nigeria. Abuja: Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre
  2. Bond, Patrick (2006) Looting Africa- the economics of exploitation, University of Kwazulu Press, Pietermaritzburg/Zed Books, p67
  3. Shell Sustainability Report 2007, p 24
  4. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (2008) Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture – The Challenges of Climate Change in Sub-Saharan Africa. At a side even of CSD16 at the UN, 8 May
  5. NOSDRA was established by Act of the National Assembly on 18th October, 2006 an institutional framework to coordinate and implement the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) for Nigeria in accordance with the International Convention on oil pollution preparedness, response and cooperation (OPRC) 1990, to which Nigeria is a signatory. The agency is mandated to ensure timely, effective and appropriate response to all oil spills as well as ensuring clean up and remediation of oil impacted sites.
  6. Nigerian News Service reporting from Daily Independent (2009) 'Nigeria Records 2,122 Oil Spills In Four Years'. Tuesday, 06 Octoberhttp://www.nigeriannewsservice.com/nigeria-records-2122-oil-spills-in-four-years/ (accessed 7 June 2016)
  7. Bassey, Nnimmo (2012) To Cook A Continent – Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crises in Africa, Oxford, Pambazuka Press
  8. Bassey, Nnimmo (2008) ‘Communities Subsidise Petroleum prices … not Government,’ Lagos, The Guardian, July 27
  9. Bassey, Nnimmo. Will they say our youths were not shot? http://justiceinnigerianow.org/uncategorized/will-they-say-our-youths-were-not-shot (accessed 31 May 2016)
  10. This war was fought 1967-1970
  11. In 1990 Umuechem community was sacked by mobile policemen and 500 houses were burnt down and 80 persons were killed simply because the people dared to organise a protest against the exploitation of their resources with no due benefits accruing to them.
  12. The Odi massacre occurred in November 1999 under the presidency of Chief Obasanjo. 2843 citizens including children and the aged were killed. For details see ERA: A Blanket of Silence
  13. Castro, Fidel with Ramonet, Ignacio (2007) My Life, London, Penguin Books, p397
  14. Castro (2007) P399
  15. Environmental Rights Action field reports and testimonies
  16. Oilwatch International Monitors Handbook. This may also be found in Conant, Jeff and Fadem, Pam (2008) Community Guide to Environmental Health, Hesperian Foundation, P.506
  17. For detailed field reports of oil spills and other incidents see Knee Deep in Crude (Volumes 1 and 2) – a compilation of ERA’s field reports. Environmental Rights Action, 2009
  18. Steiner, Richard, Double Standards? – International Standards to Prevent and Control Pipeline Oil Spills Compared with Shell Practices in Nigeria. (not yet published)
  19. Steiner, as cited above
  20. Bassey, Nnimmo: ‘Roaring flames on the bight of Biafra’ at http://www.pambazuka.org/governance/roaring-flames-bight-biafraaccessed 31 May 2016
  21. Nnimmo Bassey (11 March 2012) 'Fires on Our Waters'. http://nnimmo.blogspot.com.ng/2012/03/fires-on-our-waters.html
  22. The Bush Refineries of the Niger Delta published in the Oil Politics column of the author in 234NEXT. http://nigeriang.com/money/oil-politics-the-bush-refineries-of-the-niger-delta/8332/ (accessed 31 May 2016)
  23. Quoted in Bassey, Nnimmo (2012): To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa. Oxford, Pambazuka Press
  24. See WikiLeaks cables on the subject
  25. For more on this see HOMEF’s Community Guide to Environmental Monitoring.https://nnimmo.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/community-monitoring-guide-homef.pdf (accessed 31 May 2016)
  26. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04809.pdf (accessed 31 May 2016)
  27. Ibid
  28. Owuamanam, Jude (2009) Bunkering: Uduaghan Blames Oil Firms, Multinationals. Lagos: The Punch. November 8, Page 5.
  29. Ojo, Eric (2009). Bankole laments illegal oil bunkering in Nigeri Delta – challenges security agencies on leakages in public funds. Lagos, Businessday, November 8, page 8.
  30. Ehirim, Chuks (2009) How Naval Officers aid Bunkering, Lagos: National Daily, November 16-22


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Oil Politics by Nnimmo Bassey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


Comments are closed.