INVESTIGATION (Part 2): How decades of gas flaring is harming Nigerians

A Shell gas flare site at Rumuekpe
A Shell gas flare site at Rumuekpe

This is the second and concluding part of the investigation. Read the first part here

It rains acids

One humid morning, at the peak of the harvest season in 2010, Dandy Mgbenwa, 50, accompanied by his wife, set out for their farm situated about 500 metres from the gas flare site at Ebocha.

The year’s planting season had been fraught with several challenges. First, an outbreak of diseased cassava stems meant that most farmers had to buy healthy ones from the market. And then, shifting cultivation being a widespread practice in the communities, the farm near the flare site at Ebocha was the next in line for cultivation by Mr. Mgbenwa.

The planting season finally came to an end, but the farmer was unprepared for what happened one year later – during the harvest.

The land, it turned out, had become barren.

“We went with several bags, hoping that at least we can make garri, which is the main stable food here. We went there with great expectation. We have seen the way we put so much labour in the farm so we were sure we were going to get food, and then left with the money to buy fish and other things,” Mr. Mgbenwa recalled.

“When I pulled out the first stem and there was nothing under it, it was so unexpected. That was the first time I farmed so close to that place (the flare site). I was thinking that maybe like the ones we’d farmed further away, that at least there will be yield.

“Anybody who farms expects yield. I felt really bad about it. I was completely devastated because that was the only source of food for the family. And when it’s not there and the money to buy is not there, you can imagine the devastation. We just gathered the little we could and left,” he added.

Studies have shown that acid rain mainly caused by gas flaring increases the acidity of the soil leading to poor harvests.

Mr. Mgbenwa was not the only farmer whose farm failed to produce good harvest that year. Some hundreds of metres away, Mr. Chukwudi said that he was digging around “one chain” of his cassava farm – about 56 square metres – to fill his two large sacks. He was disappointed.

“I would see the stem very very big, but when I uproot it, I would see nothing.

“We know it is the flare because the nitrate in the soil is no more effective. Even the cockroach in the box knows about it,” said Mr. Chukwudi.

“But we cannot allow those farms to grow to forest. If those farms grow to forest now, a lot of things will be happening in the bush. It will be a den for armed robbers.

“We now go to neighbouring villages, about 20 kilometres away, and buy portions of land to farm in order to feed the family,” he added.

The problem, however, does not end at the farm; at home, the farmers are faced with the arduous task of continually replacing the rusted roofs over their heads.

Mr. Chukwudi said that the zinc sheets on his house “tear as clothes do tear.”

Some of the inhabitants have begun replacing their corroded zinc roofs with the corrosion-resistant aluminium sheets, although the latter does not come cheap.

“Some people suffer themselves, even without eating, to make sure they put aluminium zinc, because it (the gas flare) doesn’t affect aluminium zinc,” Mr. Chukwudi added.

‘Divide and rule’

The narrow road that leads into Rumuekpe is as lonely as it is flanked by lush vegetation. A signpost at the entrance to the community bids visitors ‘Welcome to Rumuekpe, the Land of Peace.’

But the village had been everything but peaceful.

After four years of violent intra-community conflict that pitched brothers against cousins and in-laws against each other, the oil-rich community now struggles with a semblance of peace.

But the after-taste of war still lingers at every nook and cranny in the community. Dozens of burnt houses overgrown by weeds litter the roads, youths stroll around with rifles dangling across their shoulders – even at drinking joints – and an eerie silence across the land periodically punctured by the chirps from birds overhead and goats bleating in compounds.

Between June 5, 2005, and November 14, 2009, Rumuekpe was a battlefield as two factions in the community – named the Old Government and the New Government – were at each other’s throat as the latter sought to overthrow the former, accusing it of insincerity in its dealings with the oil companies.

And fingers were pointed at the oil multinationals for instigating the conflict through a ‘divide and rule politics.’

“There was division in the whole community. If a man is in this section, his wife will be in the other section, and the children will also be divided killing ourselves,” said Honest Amadi, 32, a survivor of the bloody conflict.

At 5ft 4″, Mr. Amadi’s stature, gentle appearance, and soft voice belie a ruthless soldier feared and respected, in equal measure, by his almost 300 lieutenants.

Although he shied from discussing it, others who fought the battle told about how Mr. Amadi, known as the Commander, efficiently led an army of armed youth for years as they battled for supremacy in the community.

One morning in April, outside Mr. Amadi’s home in Ovelle Nvakaohia Village, where a machete stuck into the ground in front of the house serves as “security,” a police patrol van, with four armed officers, rolled past.

“Who gave them the permission to enter this community?” Mr. Amadi snapped, searching the faces of the five boys present.

One of the boys, named ‘Osama Brutal Soldier,’ raised his wrap of Indian hemp, leisurely, belched a cloud of smoke into the air, and replied: “Make we go find out now.”

Together, leader and follower marched briskly towards the police van, the latter still puffing away at his hemp.

Minutes later, they returned, and Mr. Amadi declared: “They have identified themselves… No military person can enter this community without our permission.”

Rumuekpe, with an estimated population of 18,000 inhabitants, hosts the oil facilities of Shell, Agip, Niger-Delta Petroleum Resources, Total, among others.

But unlike in Egbema kingdom where the Agip gas turbine supplies uninterrupted electricity to the communities; Rumuekpe is in darkness – the community’s hitherto constant power supply from Shell’s gas turbine was destroyed during the crisis.

And there is neither a standard school nor hospital present. Portable water comes from hand-pump, untreated, boreholes provided by Total.

“Now that we have realized that…because the former information was that it’s our brothers who are blocking, who are the cause of why the community is not growing, the fighting started from there, and they killed all those people,” said Mr. Amadi.

“And today we are now re-asking them (oil companies) to come and help us do these things. Those things they said it’s our brothers holding it, those ones are no longer alive but they are not still doing it. We have killed our brothers because of this issue.”

Oil exploration by Shell in Rumuekpe dates as far back as 1956, and till date the community hosts one of Shell’s biggest manifolds in the eastern division.

Gas flaring in the community, where cassava and plantain are the major crops, is as old as the oil exploration.

Since 1956, Rumuekpe has served as a gathering point for the oil and gas pipelines and other installations that criss-cross to other parts of the Niger Delta.

At a farmland in one of the villages, a huge metal pipe from a Shell oil facility emerges from the ground and races a further 300 metres to a cleared portion where it vomits a giant tongue of fire.

A few metres away, a faded Shell flag flew briskly in the noon wind.

“When rain falls now, you will see the particles of gas flare in the water, most especially in a white basin, you will discover that it’s oil. We don’t drink rainwater anymore,” Mr. Amadi said.

While the oil companies’ divide and rule tactics have been a major factor in emasculating the host communities’ resolve to hold them accountable; a large ignorant and barely literate villagers have not also helped matters.

Between March 18 and 21, Gas Alert for Sustainable Initiative, GASIN, a non-governmental organization, held a town hall for Obrikom, Mgbede, Okwizi, and Agah communities to ‘create awareness on the effects of production and processing of natural gas in Nigeria.’

The forum invited senior government officials, environmental experts, and activists to educate the villagers on gas flaring and help them forge a common front in their dealings with the government and oil companies.

“They said a lot of things,” Mr. Nwabuisi said, on a recent night, as he relaxed on a bench outside his house.

“They tell the community the effects and what we should do to stop it, though our people told them that the government is the reason.

“Everybody is not even worried about the repercussion. What they are after is homage – if any contractor is coming to do contract with Agip, that is where our people is more anxious. Nobody is concerned about stopping,” said Mr. Nwabuisi.

“Now everybody is serious about stopping it because GASIN have already told us the effects of that thing. Before now we don’t even know,” he added.

Edward Obi, a Catholic priest, founded GASIN to raise the awareness of adverse effects of gas flaring among the locals in host communities, and empower them to take up their cases themselves.

“I hope we are making impact. We’ve spent time with them, trying to make them aware of the impacts of gas flaring on their health, well being, livelihood. I hope they are somewhat aware and understand these things a bit more,” Mr. Obi, dressed in his priestly robe, said during an interview inside his modest office in Port Harcourt

“But that’s not all. At another time, I’m gonna go back again to reinforce. I’m going to use other strategies, maybe school children or women groups and all that. I have all kinds of strategies that I will deploy as time goes on,” he added.

Law enforcement

As at 1991, according to the World Bank, Nigeria had flared 76 per cent of its gross domestic production of gas. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, stated that between 1970 and 1997, a total of 23,261 trillion cubic feet of gas was produced out of which only 20 per cent was utilized.

Various legislations had been put in place to curb gas flaring in Nigeria since 1969, but successive governments had lacked the political will to enforce them.

Currently, the Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB, is yet to be passed into law, fuelling concerns that the government is not yet serious about curbing gas flaring.

Speaking recently, David Mark, Nigeria’s Senate President, blamed the Executive arm of inability to develop the “strong will” to ensure implementation of basic policies.

“The penalty for any defaulter is too meagre for anybody to go the hard way of reducing gas flaring. Whatever it is, it is cheaper for the companies or the operators to flare gas and pay the penalty,” Mr. Mark said.

However, Nigeria’s Petroleum Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, maintains that the incidence of gas flaring in the oil industry has dropped from 25 per cent to 11 per cent.

“Many of the International Oil Companies (IOCs) are fast approaching full flare out as the gas obligation and infrastructure growth have all combined to enable utilization of hitherto flared gas,” Mrs. Alison-Madueke told investors at a Conference on Gas Resources organized by the Senate Committee on Gas Resources in Abuja.

But, perhaps, the highest incentive to the continued flaring of gas in Nigeria by oil companies is the lackadaisical attitude with which already laid down regulations, though obsolete, are enforced.

Currently, it is estimated that Nigeria flares 14.9 billion cubic feet of gas annually. At a rate of $11.8/thousand cubic feet (average price in 2011), about $166.582 million is lost in revenues – almost equivalent to the sum required to eradicate polio in the country.

A Report of the Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force, chaired by Nigeria’s former anti-corruption chief, Nuhu Ribadu, in 2012, stated that oil companies do not comply with the government’s directive of paying fines for gas flaring.

Worse still, the Task Force found out that the Department of Petroleum Resources, DPR, is unable to independently track and measure gas volumes produced and flared and depends largely on the information provided by the operators.

The DPR is the regulator of the oil and gas industry in Nigeria.

“We also observed that the periodic reconciliation meetings with the operators to address the gas flare volumes were delayed with only 6 completed of 36 at the time of our review,” noted the report, which was submitted to the Petroleum Minister in August 2012.

“The total revenue from gas flaring during the review period was $175 million with the balance outstanding as unpaid was approximately $58 million, indicating that $115 million had been received by the DPR.

“We, however, reviewed payments received by the CBN in respect of gas flare penalties. However, a review of CBN records showed that $137 million was received between 1 January 2005 and 31 December 2011. The DPR was not able to reconcile the $115 million to the $137 million.

“Lastly, operators have not complied with the recent Ministerial directive signed on 15 August 2011 increasing gas penalty fee from N10 to $3.50. The operators have continued to flare gas at the rate of N10 and records at the DPR reveal that none of the companies have paid any gas penalty fee in 2012,” the report added.

The DPR did not respond to a PREMIUM TIMES Freedom of Information request seeking to know, among other things, why it had failed to enforce the gas flare penalties.

The penalty, one of Nigeria’s revenue streams collected by the DPR through the CBN, is computed in line with the Associated Gas Reinjection Act of 1979. The Act compels every company producing oil and gas in Nigeria to submit preliminary programs for gas re-injection and detailed plans for its implementation.

The legislation banned the flaring of gas after 1 January 1984 without the permission of the Minister of Petroleum Resources.

OIL AND GAS

In January 1988, the penalty fee for gas flaring was increased from 0.50 kobo to N10 per square cubic feet (scf). This was later increased to $3.50 on 15 August 2011.

The Ribadu committee report recommended that the DPR should develop a proper process to independently track and record gas flare figures/volumes to prevent revenue losses to the federal government.

“Federal government should put in more efforts to ensure that the zero gas flare penalties are implemented by the beginning of the next fiscal year,” it added.

At Mgbede, the light bulbs rarely blink. But the farmers would gladly trade the electricity for portions of fertile lands for their crops.
“It is the most significant thing we have benefitted,” said Mr. Mgbenwa, his brows furrowed as he gazed at the glowing bulb outside his veranda.
“But besides that, the negative impacts far outweigh whatever benefits we may have received. The fertile lands have gone barren; there is abject poverty in the land.”

(This investigative report was done with a grant from the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ)

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