Vanguard (Lagos)

28 July 2012

Nigeria: Oil Spills - Tackling Nation's Worst Environmental Disaster

Photo: Aliyu Adekunle
Flooding in Lagos.

Crude oil exploration has witnessed an upward growth since the commodity was first discovered in the country in the 1950s. While it has sustained the Nigerian economy, the oil exploration activities have taken its toll on the Nigerian environment.

One such consequence of oil exploration is the effect of oil spillage on the terrestrial and aquatic life. However, in the past decade, stakeholders including the Federal Government and foreign oil companies operating in the country have begun to take concrete steps to mitigate the impacts.

President Goodluck Jonathan last Friday approved the setting up of a Hydro-Carbon Pollution Restoration Project, HYPREP, a step taken in furtherance of the Federal government's commitment to implement the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Assessment Report on the spill disaster in Ogoniland.

The Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, who announced the project in a press conference in Abuja, told journalists that the setting up of HYPREP by Mr. President is in keeping with the Federal Government's determination to protect the environmental human rights of the people.

According to her, the Project shall implement the recommendations of the UNEP report on Ogoniland as well as investigate, evaluate and establish other hydrocarbon impacted sites and make appropriate recommendations. She noted that, "With the establishment of this project, it is expected that all stakeholders, especially the impacted communities, will cooperate fully with Government and grant unfettered access to all impacted sites to ensure complete success."

She solicited the cooperation of all stakeholders especially community leaders to ensure the effective implementation of the programme.

Alison-Madueke further announced that the Presidential Investigation Committee originally set up to consider the report would "morph into an advisory capacity, with the Minister of Environment as its head. This committee would be working with UNEP to implement the report," she added.

Recently, the Council of Ogoni Traditional Rulers had lamented the apparent neglect by the Federal Government, even as it discloses that thousands of children in the community are found to be suffering from cancer and other deadly diseases from exposure to contaminated water and food as a result of oil spill from activities of oil companies in the area.

The Gberemene Gokana Kingdom and Vice President, Supreme Council of Ogoni Traditional Rulers, His Royal Highness, King Barnabas B.P. Bagia said his people were prepared to work for peace in the community, adding that the community should be allowed to nominate contractors for the cleaning up and remediation exercise, to be monitored by NOSDRA to avoid poor performance.

He noted that the Ogoni people have "suffered neglect, deprivation and torture amongst other ethnic tribes in Nigeria. We belong to the very few that substantially formed part if the tribes that are owners in possession of the wealth of this nation, but we are robbed of the sweat of our labour by the majority tribes who gained through privileged position as leaders for the oppressed class."

The Gberemene further stated that for over fifty years of operations by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in Ogoniland, the revenue derived from the sales of crude oil are used by the Federal Government to develop major cities in the country while the Ogoni communities remain underdeveloped.

According to him, "Our people are apparently wallowing in abject poverty, with its attendant sicknesses and diseases caused by the oil spilled from Shell Petroleum Development Company's faulty pipelines in our land, which has destroyed all aquatic lives upon which the livelihood of the poor depend. Gokana Kingdom, made up of about twenty populated villages on whose land the worst oil spillage from SPDC occurred as contained in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, which shows that every child born in Ogoni in the past twenty years is suffering from cancer."

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, has blamed some of the worst oil spill experienced in the region to acts of illegal oil bunkering, adding that such events could expose the Niger Delta region to the worst environmental disasters ever faced in the history of the country. The Corporation also disclosed that the country presently loses over 180,000 barrels of crude oil per day to oil thieves, warning that if unchecked, such criminal activities could cripple the nation's oil and gas production.

In a recent meeting with House of Representatives Committee on Petroleum Resources (Upstream), led by its Chairman, Hon. Ajibola Muraina, the former Group Managing Director of the NNPC, Engr. Austen Oniwon described insecurity of oil and gas facilities due to acts of illegal bunkering as "the major problem we have in the industry."

He stated that, "We did have challenges with the issue of militancy several years ago, but we thank the government for the amnesty programme which yielded very effective results and was very successful in curtailing incidents of militancy in the Niger Delta. Unfortunately, the militants in the Niger Delta have been replaced by criminals. As of today, our activities and operations have been severely handicapped by the activities of these criminals. We lose, as of today, almost 180,000 barrels of crude oil per day to criminals. When you consider that the total amount of crude oil produce by Ghana that sustains that country is about 120,000 barrels per day, you begin to see the enormity of the situation we have in our hands."

Oniwon added that, "The implication of this is many folds. Because these people carry out their activities in the most unprofessional manner, they have caused huge environmental pollution in the areas they operate. We had a major incidence in Ogoni land, which we are still coping with; but what we are seeing today due to the activities of these oil thieves, the situation may be twice the destruction of environment in Ogoniland.

"These people drill into the pipeline, take what they want and leave the destroyed pipelines to ooze into the environment. For those that engage in illegal refining, because of the crude method that they use, they just take crude oil put it in a drum and boil; whatever boils off it is what they take, which often times is less than 25 percent of the entire product. The remaining 75 percent they don't need they dispose into the environment, causing huge environmental problems for us."

According to the NNPC boss, giving results of research that showed that hydrocarbon waste can stay on the ground for decades, the waste from activities can last for generations before the land could be recovered for productive activities.

Oniwon noted a United Nations study in parts of the Niger Delta which indicated that spills from oil has penetrated up to about 30 metres below the soil. "Even if you want to remediate the soil, you cannot scrape 30 metres of top soil and replace it. Therefore, we are looking at what might be permanent damage to the environment due to activities of these oil thieves.

"These people are looking for quick money, but they are causing damage that may last for generations. So, we need the support of the National Assembly in tackling this menace of illegal oil bunkering in the Niger Delta region," he noted.

The National Policy for the Environment outlines a broad spectrum of environmental issues that require definite attention and action by all stakeholders. Among these is the critical concern on oil pollution emanating from spills, oil well blow-outs, pipeline vandalism, and equipment failure.

The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) was established in 2006 as an institutional framework to co-ordinate the implementation of National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) for Nigeria in accordance with the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation (OPRC 90) to which Nigeria is a signatory. NOSDRA is therefore the lead agency of government in ensuring timely, effective and appropriate response to oil spills, through clean up and remediation of all impacted sites to all best practical extent.

Speaking in our interview with our correspondent in Abuja, the NOSDRA boss, Sir Peter Idabor explained that the Agency ensures that all oil spills are cleaned up by the company responsible for the spills, adding that failure to clean up promptly attracts fines to defaulters.

He added. "NOSDRA has been engaged in monitoring of remediation of past impacted sites, and has inspected more than 1,150 impacted sites of various oil companies, out of which some have been certified as having been restored to their natural status. An inventory of past impacted sites in the country is in progress. So far, the Agency has issued remediation certificates for about 269 sites."

Idabor stressed that the Agency is also involved in the cleanup of Ogoniland, which is being handled by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) at the behest of the Federal Government. He explained that in an effort to curb pollution of land and water resources caused by activities in the oil and gas industry in Nigeria, national laws, regulation, guidelines and standards have been developed to control and manage the opearations of the petroleum sector to achieve sustainable development.

However, he noted, with the increasing activities in the new horizons of the deep and ultra-depth offshore areas, it has become imperative to review and update the existing environmental regulations for the petroleum industry to make it conform to its challenges as well as reflect new advances in technology.

Idabor disclosed the Federal Government's White Paper on the UNEP Report is expected in the next few weeks. "Now, all effort is directed towards going in and ensuring a proper remedial clean-up exercise that will bring back some level of normalcy in the area, beginning with the provision of clean, potable water for use by the people of the area."

He further announced that as the outcome of a preliminary meeting with Governor Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State, the agency is working towards sealing off contaminated wells, and supply fresh potable water for consumption by Ogoni people.

The NOSDRA Chief Executive pointed out that the Agency is in the process of establishing a National Command and Control Centre for the purpose of detecting and managing oil spill incidents through the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology. To this end, he noted, approval has been given via the Ecological Funds Office for the procurement and installation of the GIS equipment at the centre.

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