The recent gas fire at the Chevron Nigeria-operated KS Endeavour drilling rig, caused by an explosion from a new gas well head at Funawa 5 Gas Platform in Bayelsa State, has again brought to the fore the need for a lasting solution to the incidence of environmental pollution caused by the exploration and production of oil and gas in the country.
Unless government takes strict and decisive measures to forestall their occurrence, the perennial challenge of environmental pollution and degradation of the oil bearing region, which has already made life unbearable for the people of the region will never come to an end, or reduced to an insignificant level.
Although the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, has pledged the commitment of the federal government to provide a lasting solution to the challenge, the lives of innocent Nigerians, especially those in the Niger Delta region, would continue to be threatened by the frequent disasters if the situation is not tackled urgently.
While the communities affected by the recent spill from Shell's Bonga oil field are still counting their losses, eight communities spread across Southern Ijaw and Brass Local Government Areas of Bayelsa State have now been impacted by the Chevron gas fire, leaving them with untold hardship.
According to the President of Niger Delta Coastal Communities, Alaowei Biukeme, over 840 communities cutting across Delta, Bayelsa and Akwa-Ibom States were affected by the Bonga spill which occurred in December 20, 2011.
Speaking during an assessment tour of some impacted communities, Alison-Madueke restated the readiness of the petroleum ministry to galvanise the International Oil Companies (IOCs), as well as the host communities to ensure that the operating environment is made safe for all concerned in line with international best practice.
Perhaps this is the time to look into the recommendations of the former Governor of the US State of New Mexico and erstwhile US Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson. According to Richardson, there is the urgent need to implement the UNEP report on the region, noting that the Niger Delta was significant to Nigeria's economic wellbeing as it accounts for 20 per cent GDP and more than 80 per cent of its national budget.
He also warned that whatever happens in the region could have a huge impact on the global oil market due to its significant contribution to the world's oil market, saying that "the challenges have been growing for more than five decades; it is time to face it squarely."
As a way forward, the energy expert suggested the establishment of a special Niger Delta clean-up fund and a high level clean-up committee to be made up of members from the ministries of petroleum, environment and other relevant agencies.
He also called for the review of the mandate of the Niger Delta Development Commission to include oil spill clean-up and advocated the imposition of heavy fines on future spills in addition to the companies being made to take responsibility for the clean-up, while advising the government to set up a special advisory council that will channel proposals and ideas to the high level clean-up committee.