Black market fuel made from stolen oil in rudimentary "bush" refineries hidden deep in the creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta is less polluting than the highly toxic diesel and petrol that Europe exports to Nigeria, The Guardian has reported, citing a new laboratory analysis.
According to the British newspaper, Shell, Exxon, Chevron and other major oil companies extract and export up to two million barrels a day of high quality, low sulphur "Bonny Light" crude from the Niger delta. But very little of this oil is refined in the country because its four state-owned refineries are dysfunctional or have closed.
Instead, international dealers export to Nigeria around 900,000 tonnes a year of low-grade, "dirty" fuel, made in Dutch, Belgian and other European refineries, while hundreds of small-scale artisanal refineries produce large quantities of illegal fuel from oil stolen from the network of oil pipelines that criss-cross the Niger Delta, the report reads.
"The net result, says international resource watchdog group, Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN) in a new report, is that Nigeria has some of the worst air pollution in the world, with dense clouds of choking soot hanging over gridlocked cities leading to a rise in serious health conditions as well as damaged vehicles.
"It said the extreme toxicity of the "official" fuel exported from Europe surprised researchers who took samples of diesel sold in government-licensed filling stations in Port Harcourt and Lagos. They found that on average the fuel exceeded EU pollution limits by as much as 204 times, and by 43 times the level for gasoline," said the report.
It said laboratory analysis also showed that the black market fuel was highly polluting but of a higher quality than the imported diesel and gasoline. The average "unofficial" diesel tested exceeded the level of EU sulphur standards 152 times, and 40 times the level for gasoline.
In the report published on Wednesday, the newspaper said with more than 11 million mostly old cars imported from Europe and Japan on the roads, and hundreds of thousands of inefficient generators used by households and businesses for electricity, Nigeria ranks fourth in the world for deaths caused by air pollution. It has been estimated that 114,000 people die prematurely from air pollution each year.
The air quality in cities like Port Harcourt, Aba, Onitsha and Kaduna has reached crisis levels of pollution in recent years, and there is mounting evidence of rising asthma, lung, heart and respiratory diseases, said the report.
"Levels of particulate matter in Port Harcourt and Lagos, says SDN, are 20% worse than Delhi in India, the most polluted capital city in the world, where emergency levels of photochemical smogs are common. In 2016, the River Niger port city of Onitsha was said by the World Health Organization to be the world's most polluted city, the concentration of PM10s - soot particles - was recorded at 594 micrograms per cubic metre; compared with the WHO safe limit of 66", the report stated.
Matthew Halstead of Noctis, which conducted the laboratory research, said: "This is even more concerning at a time when Nigeria is facing an outbreak of coronavirus. High levels of pollution and pre-existing respiratory and other health conditions may increase the risk that Covid-19 poses to the health of the population."
The newspaper noted that the SDN report substantiates allegations made in a 2016 Public Eye investigation and a Dutch government report in 2018, that European refineries and commodity brokers were blending crude oil with benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals to create fuels hundreds of times over European pollution limits for the weakly-regulated African market. This was said to be causing significant particulate pollution, damage to vehicles, and adverse health impacts for local populations.
SDN said illegal artisanal refineries are growing fast in number and scale, and are now producing between five per cent to 20 per cent of all the gasoline and diesel consumed in Nigeria from an estimated 175,000 barrels of crude oil stolen each year. "The bush refineries are highly dangerous and frequently explode, adding to air, water and soil pollution in the mangrove swamps. But they are an important source of income for communities," added the broadcaster.
Florence Kayemba, SDN programme manager, said "Our research suggests that Nigeria is having dirty fuel dumped on it that cannot be sold to other countries with higher and better implemented standards. The situation is so bad that the average diesels sampled are of an even lower quality than that produced by artisanal refining camps in the creeks of the Niger delta," according to the report.
In a recent analysis on 'dirty fuel' by SDN, the samples analysed contained very high levels of sulphur compared to EU standards. Average unofficial fuel samples contained sulphur concentrations of 1,523 ppm (diesel), 401 ppm (gasoline) and 759 ppm (kerosene). Average official samples contained 2,044 ppm (diesel), 429 ppm (gasoline), and 813 ppm (kerosene).
SDN said "the highest sulphur concentration analysed was 3,020 ppm found in a diesel sample from an Oando filling station in Port Harcourt city. It is striking how the majority of official samples contained high sulphur, supporting the findings of the Public Eye investigation. Interestingly, the lowest sulphur diesel came from a Total filling station in Port Harcourt city, containing 140 ppm, still 14 times over EU standards, but significantly lower than all unofficial and official samples analysed."
SDN noted that the sole NNPC diesel samples contained 1,070 ppm, considerably lower than the average official diesel fuel sample but still 107 times over EU standards. "NNPC, as the national oil company, could take the opportunity to lead performance in this area and to bring its products in line with the proposed standard."
According to SDN, given that new emission reduction technologies require a maximum level of 10 ppm, the majority of vehicles in Port Harcourt city are likely to be very high emitters of particulate pollution, whether consuming official or unofficial fuels.
It said "Interestingly, Lagos samples from official filling stations contained, on average, sulphur concentrations 1.5 times greater than the Niger Delta samples. There could be a number of reasons for this, including the possibility that official fuel with high sulphur concentrations are being blended with lower sulphur unofficial fuel in the Niger Delta."