Governor Seriake Dickson on Thursday named John Sentamu of the Church of England head of a high-powered international panel to probe deadly oil spills in Bayelsa State.
John Kuffuor, a former Ghanaian president, would also serve on the panel, which has the mandate to hold both public and private hearings and submit its findings within nine months.
The governor said the environmental degradation arising from the spills has become insufferable in recent years, leading to the death of at least 16,000 Niger-Delta infants in their first month annually.
Earlier this month, he accused the oil firms of aggravating security crisis in the region, calling on heavy sanctions to forcibly push the companies towards meeting international standards of oil production.
At the inauguration of the commission of inquiry in Yenagoa, the state capital, on Thursday, Mr Dickson canvassed urgent international investigation to hold major oil companies to account and engender restitution for the people of Niger-Delta “who have continued to pay severe prices for decades of oil exploration and production”.
The governor accused oil companies of spilling about 40 million barrels of crude in the Niger-Delta, as against about four million recorded in the United States, according to details of the event circulated by government spokesperson, Daniel Iworiso-Markson.
The environmental challenges have also seen the life expectancy of Niger-Delta residents cut by 10 years against national average of 55.2 years as of 2018.
The governor expressed confidence that the ten-man Commission òf Inquiry on Environmental Degradation would help resolve some of the crucial issues, especially as it is led by Mr Sentamu, the Archbishop of York and second most-senior official of the Church of England, coming directly behind the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The nine-point mandate of the panel cuts across health, socio-economic, cultural and human damage allegedly caused by operations of both local and multinational oil companies.
Mr Dickson said oil firms operating in the Niger-Delta should be held to similar standards enforceable in Norway, Scotland and the United States.
Mr Sentamu decried the detrimental effect of oil spill. He called on the international community to prioritise protection of the environment as a collective heritage of mankind.
Other members of the committee include Valerie Amos, Engobo Emeseh, Anna Zalik, Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou, the commission’s secretary; Roland Hodler and Michael Watts.
Kemasuode Wodu, a former Bayelsa attorney-general, would stand as the panel’s legal adviser.
PREMIUM TIMES also reached out to Chevron and Shell for comments.
The oil giants’ spokespersons promised to get back with a detailed response to the governor’s charges, but were yet to do so hours after official close of business on Friday.
However, the oil firms have long defended themselves against accusations of not doing much to curb release of toxic substances across the Niger-Delta.
They also previously said they have done a lot to ameliorate the suffering of the local population, even though they add that the Nigerian government should be held responsible for damages to the environment and its deadly toll on residents.