26 The coming belt of fire

This was first published in 234NEXT on August 05, 2010[1]

On 20 April the world woke up to what oil spills mean and could mean. Many reporters and the news media suddenly realised that there were heavy spills in the Niger Delta, besides the gas flares that toast the skies daily.

However, even as the media lenses are focused on some of the atrocious evidence of environmental impunity in our backyard, the angling for new oil blocks is assuming a stronger beat in the corridors of Aso Rock, as well as in the board rooms of oil companies and related speculators.

The government needs more revenue; the oil companies need more profits— it is a crude wedlock of convenience. Meanwhile the people are crying for mere space for survival. Who listens to them?

Furthermore, as crude oil reserves deplete, oil companies are moving into more fragile environments: off shore and even eco-reserves. There are also more concerted moves into dirtier forms of crude— such as bitumen development.

Bitumen mining produces three to five times more greenhouse gases than conventional crude oil extraction. With the plans by government to exploit bitumen from Edo state to Lagos state, we can expect a belt of fire in this region that will make the Niger Delta conflict a weak prelude.

Bitumen is extracted largely by two methods: open cast mining or drilling somewhat like crude oil is extracted. The open cast mining system means excavation of the soil to reach the mineral necessitating the uprooting of everything in its path. This means that whereas communities have been polluted in the Niger Delta, in some of the areas where bitumen will be mined, communities will simply have to be relocated or just dislocated. Where bitumen is to be extracted by drilling, steam has first to be pumped into the wells to melt the mineral and thus make it possible to pump to the surface through pipes. All these add to indicate that bitumen belt will indeed be a belt of fire.

Even though a monster cap has been fitted over the monster spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the end of the story has not been reached. The spill has revealed difficulties in oil field practices even where sophisticated technologies are involved.

The environmental health concerns of the industry have also been brought to question. Do the companies in the sector conduct genuine environment impact studies/analyses for their projects? Do they have adequate oil spill response plans and mechanisms? To what degree were the health and safety of the workers considered in the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico?

In terms of transparency, we see that the spill volume kept increasing over time, as the BP was forced to be more realistic with the figures. It is a shameful display of corporate duplicity and unwillingness to be open. Check this trend.[2] April 25: 1,000 barrels; April 28: 5,000 barrels; May 27: 12,000 – 25,000 barrels; Early June: 20,000 – 50,000 barrels per day. Today it is generally agreed that the spill was spewing over 100,000 barrels a day right from day one.

Spineless government officials

In our backyard, ExxonMobil has recorded a string of offshore spills from their Qua Iboe operations since last May without a whimper from government about the plight of the local communities and their destroyed fisheries.

The impacts of the spill in the gulf have made headlines and cleaning efforts are even televised. What no one knows is the extent to which these will affect the food chain and ultimately humans. What is not known also are the cracks that the explosion may have caused on the ocean floor and what the implications maybe if there is a huge release of gases like methane from the earth bowels.

The clean up efforts are sustained, but the burning of crude releases greenhouse gases and the use of a cocktail of chemical dispersants pose untold dangers.

Photos of the impacts on birds and aquatic life melt even the stoniest of hearts. Little wonder government officials have attempted to keep them from public view. What breaks my heart more than those photos from the Gulf of Mexico is the nonchalance of our government officials about destroyed livelihoods and destroyed human lives in the Niger Delta, in the Gulf of Guinea.

A 2006 report[3] by Nigerian scientists and the World Conservation Union concludes that ‘an estimated 1.5million 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.’ The Exxon Valdez spill occurred in 1989. Till date clods of crude oil are still traceable on the shores that were impacted. And that spill was cleaned 21 years ago.

When will there be a real response in Nigeria?

  1. Now also available online at http://nigeriang.com/money/oil-politics-the-coming-belt-of-fire/3326/. (accessed 15 June 2016)
  2. See Time Magazine’s 100 Days of the BP Spill: A Timeline. http://content.time.com/time/interactive/0,31813,2006455,00.html (accessed 31 May 2016)
  3. See Kadafa, Adati Ayuba (2012), Environmental Impacts of Oil Exploration and Exploitation in the Niger Delta of Nigeria (accessed 31 May 2016); and https://globaljournals.org/GJSFR_Volume12/2-Environmental-Impacts-of-Oil-Exploration.pdf (accessed 7 june 2016)

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