The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) has threatened to shut down the entire Nembe Creek Trunk Line (NCTL) following increasing incidents of pipeline vandalism and crude theft.
It said the Joint (Military)Task Force (JTF) appeared to have been overwhelmed by the activities of the vandals, a claim the force has also denied.
The NCTL is a major pipeline of 6,000 kilometres that runs from Nembe in Bayelsa through the Niger Delta region to Bonny Island in Rivers State and is a major conveyor of crude from about 12 flow stations spread across the two states.
Addressing journalists after a helicopter overfly of the trunk line, the Managing Director of SPDC and Country Chairman, Shell Companies in Nigeria, Mr. Mutiu Sunmonu, said the situation in the past few weeks had become alarming and called on the JTF to step up its activities in the area.
He said the company loses about 60,000 barrels per day to the activities of the criminals and that the country is in a crisis as a result of this.
His words: "The volume being stolen is the highest in the last three years; over 60,000 barrels per day from Shell alone. So, that for me is a great concern.
"The other important point for me is the fact that over time, this whole crime has gotten a lot more sophisticated and you could see that the perpetrators are now setting up barge building yards, they are setting up storage facilities, they are setting up tank farms for storing the crude, prior to shipping out.
"So, if you look at all of these, it is very clear to me that this is not just an act by desperate individuals trying to make a living. This certainly is a well funded criminal activity, probably involving international syndicates.
"I really want to put it to you that we are in a crisis. We are in a crisis as a country because this is something which I worry is beyond the capacity of any individual company or beyond the capacity of a country to solve. We really need concerted efforts nationally, locally and internationally to actually get this under control.
"It's really going to cause a big devastation, but I really worry about crude oil theft. Frankly speaking, my worry is not about the economy per se, the economy itself is huge, but I worry more about the devastation, the devastation for the people of Niger Delta, the destruction it will cause to the social and environmental aspect of the people of the delta and to Nigeria as a whole."
He lamented that the situation was becoming uncontrollable and that the company might consider shutting down the entire trunk line to save the environment from complete devastation.
"I really want to make the point that we are in a crisis and I cannot as MD of SPDC in all good conscience, just continue to put my head in the sand. This is really getting to the crunch I must say, it is getting to the crunch that rather than allow people to continue to attack my pipeline and devastate the environment, I may actually consider shutting in the pipeline completely. So, it is getting to that crunch point and I hope that every hand will really join us in actually getting this under control," Sunmonu said.
He said although the theft covered the entire length of the pipeline, the areas worst affected were the Kakrama and Awoba stretch of the trunk line.
On Shell's collaboration with host communities to check vandalism, Sunmonu said, "This is beyond communities, this is well funded and heavily armed gangs. What type of collaboration with communities will help you against people carrying guns, people who are very well armed? It is a reality that we have to face. You can't even put the poor boys in the communities at risk, you can't."
He said the JTF would need to step up their activities for any semblance of normalcy to return to the area, adding that at the peak of JTF activities, there was a significant drop in vandalism.
"Well, if you look at what happened between July or August and November and probably December last year, we saw a significant drop in the amount of crude oil that is being stolen. But, in January and February this year, it has gone back up. So that is a challenge for the JTF to also look into. I mean let's not underestimate the cleverness of the people who are perpetrating this act, and I have always said with 6, 000 km network of flowline and pipeline, even if you throw the entire Nigerian Army into the creeks, it is not going to solve the problem. So, am sure these guys are monitoring what is going on, they are moving to areas of resistance. So, it is a combination of things, but certainly we have seen that when the JTF really went after it, we got results," Sunmonu said.
But in a statement issued by its Media Coordinator, Lt.Col. Clement Nwachukwu, the JTF denied knowledge of the existence of storage facilities and barges building yards by oil thieves.
Nwachukwu reiterated the commitment of the force to the eradication of the menace posed by oil thieves and pipe line vandals.
He reeled out the achievements of the task force in the fight against vandals and oil thieves in the Niger Delta but said the force did not have enough manpower to cover the entire 6,000km stretch of the NCTL.
"Talking about oil thieves going haywire and setting up tank farms and barge building yards, I suppose that the oil companies are stakeholders in the security of Nigeria's oil sector and that there is supposed to be a synergy between them and security agencies in the country including the JTF which is at their beck and call. If they have this information and keep it to themselves rather than report it in an interface with JTF or other security agencies but only to be read on the pages of news papers, it leaves one in much doubt," Nwachukwu said.
In another development, following the arrest of two suspected pipeline vandals, Olusola Olomala and Sunday Jemaiwole, by operatives of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), in Badagry, Lagos, the suspects have since maintained their innocence, adding that their arrests by the overzealous officers was unjust.
The suspects were paraded before newsmen at the weekend.
One of the suspects, Olomala, said he has legally dealt in diesel and kerosene since 2006 and supplies to reputable companies and some government organisations like the state governors' offices as well as several filling stations.
He said, "I am a registered oil marketer and I have evidence to support that. I lift kerosene and diesel from Apapa and even though I have an office, I also take products to my customers whenever they ask for it."
He said it was on one of such trips that he was arrested by NSCDC operatives.
He claimed he had supplied products to one of his customers in Owode-Apa on Friday night and was about to drive off when he was alerted about an ongoing armed robbery operation.
He said, "I couldn't sleep as I waited in my truck for the robbery to stop so I decided to take a stroll and that was when I was arrested by NSCDC men. I'm not a vandal and I have receipts and invoices for all my transactions but the NSCDC men have not allowed me to get them."
Jemaiwole also said he was a mechanic that had just finished working on a customer's vehicle was on his way home when he was picked up, adding that he was innocent of the allegations.
However, the Commandant, NSCDC, Lagos State Command, Mr. Shem Obafaiye, said the suspects were vandals and were arrested based on intensive intelligence gathering.
He said, "We caught the suspects with products. Through our intelligence gathering, we were informed that vandals have an operational base in the area so I mobilised my men and during the operation, we arrested the suspects with 70 kegs of petrol.
"Olomala said he supplies diesel and kerosene and yet it is petrol that was found in the kegs. One also wonders why he attends to his customers at night in a place notorious for pipeline vandalism."