While various scientific research results have linked annual deaths of more than 100,000 Nigerians to air pollution, partly caused by the dirty fuel imported into the country by commodity dealers, the various regulatory bodies saddled with the responsibility of ensuring quality fuel sales have continued to engage in buck-passing.
The different agencies responsible for regulation in the oil and gas sector, including the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), and to some extent, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), have failed in their responsibility to ensure that regulatory rules and procedures are complied with by players in the sector.
A recent research, which was publicly presented in May, and conducted by an independent international watchdog organisation - Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN) - concluded that as dirty and unsafe for use as the fuels refined illegally by vandals in Nigeria's creeks may be, they are 'cleaner' than those officially imported and legally sold at filling stations across the country.
It is a confirmation of a report earlier released in 2018 by the Dutch government which revealed that fuels refined in the Netherlands and exported to West African countries including Nigeria are far below officially recommended standards and cannot be sold anywhere in Europe.
According to the SDN report, samples taken from official filling stations in Lagos, Nigeria's densely populated commercial centre, and those collected from artisanal refineries in the creeks of Bayelsa and Rivers States were subjected to laboratory tests to confirm their toxicity and their compliance with best quality standards.
The research, which is said to be partly funded by the UK Foreign Office's anti-corruption conflict, stability and security fund, is part of SDN's efforts to assist those affected by the extractive industry and weak governance by exposing irregularities and shady deals.
SDN said the sample of average diesel refined abroad and sold at approved filling stations in the country showed 2,044ppm (parts per million) for sulphur, indicating that they are 204 times more sulphuric than the limits the European Union (EU) sets as safe.
Meanwhile, the diesel refined at the illegal artisanal refineries in the creeks and jungles run by vandals showed 1,523ppm in the average, an indication that they contain 152 times higher concentration of sulphur than the EU's safe limit.
For gasoline, otherwise known as petrol, the report says official samples collected contain 43 times more than EU fuel sulphur standards, while the sulphur content of the unofficial petrol was not provided.
However, for the household kerosene, the report states that; "Official kerosene was found to be much better quality than unofficial samples, but is generally in short supply. The low quality of unofficial samples indicate artisanal camps face challenges achieving a pure kerosene product... "
An SDN official, Florence Kayemba, said; "Our research suggests Nigeria is having dirty fuel dumped that can't be sold to other countries with higher and better-implemented standards. The situation is so bad that the average official diesels sampled are of an even lower quality than that produced by artisanal refining camps in the creeks of the Niger Delta."
A report by The Guardian (UK) noted that "international dealers export to Nigeria around 900,000 tonnes a year of this low-grade, 'dirty' fuel, made in Dutch, Belgian and other European refineries, and 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."
Dutch government findings
In June 2018, the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management of the Dutch Government released the report of its research into the activities of the refineries in the Netherlands. The result of test conducted on the oil exported to West Africa revealed that dangerous products were being dumped on the sub-region.
The report states in part; "Gasoline for European vehicles may contain no more than 1 per cent of benzene. Streams from the chemical industry with more than 40 per cent of benzene had been intentionally added to the gasoline for West Africa that were investigated by the ILT to increase the octane number.
"The Inspectorate also found on-road fuels that contained 300 times more sulphur than is permitted in the EU. Basically all investigated gasoline blends contain manganese, a substance that is prohibited in Europe. West African diesels have high contents of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). This means that the product is carcinogenic to a higher degree and leads to more particulate matter emissions when combustion takes place in a diesel engine."
The research is also a reiteration of a similar investigation earlier conducted by the Swiss-based investigative team- Public Eye.
In the investigation entitled; "Dirty Diesel: How Swiss Traders Flood Africa with Toxic Fuels," Public Eye reports that; "Swiss commodity trading companies take advantage of weak fuel standards in Africa to produce, deliver and sell diesel and gasoline, which is damaging to people's health. Their business model relies on an illegitimate strategy of deliberately lowering the quality of fuels in order to increase their profits."
The NNPC, a government agency, is Nigeria's biggest importer of refined petroleum products.
But the agency's group general manager, public affairs department, Gabriel Obateru, denied his corporation's culpability.
Mr Obateru told PREMIUM TIMES that DPR is in a better position to react to the matter, as the agency is responsible for regulating the sector.
"The DPR is the regulator who inspects and certifies petroleum products coming into the country. I think DPR is best suited to react to the allegation," Mr Obateru said in a short message to PREMIUM TIMES.
When reached on the phone, the DPR spokesperson, Paul Osuh, said each country has its standards and that Nigeria's standard was approved by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON).
He said; "Every country has their national standards for petroleum products. The Nigerian industrial standards NIS 116: 2017, Standards for Premium Motor Spirit (Petrol) sets out standards and requirements for PMS retailed in Nigeria as approved by Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON).
"As a regulatory agency, our mandate is to ensure compliance with these standards through established protocols for testing of petroleum products imported into Nigeria before discharge and distribution to consumers."
Meanwhile, Nigeria's quoted standard, labelled NIS 116 and released in 2017, pegged the maximum sulphur content in petrol (PMS) at 150ppm while NIS 949 for diesel (AGO) has the maximum sulphur content pegged at 50ppm.
The NIS 949 for Household Kerosene (HHK) pegged the sulphur content at a maximum of 150ppm.
Therefore, as the result of the SDN research shows, diesel legally purchased at fuel stations in Nigeria contain sulphur 41 times higher than the Nigerian recommended standards while the sulphur contents of those refined in the creeks are about 30 times higher. Despite being confronted with this fact, Mr Osuh of DPR maintained his stance, deflecting our enquiries to SON.
When contacted, the spokesman of SON, Bola Fashina, also refuted the claim that his organisation should be responsible for the enforcement of the standard it helped to develop. He said the implementation and enforcement of the standards are the responsibilities of the regulators "in each concerned sector."
Speaking with our reporter on the phone, Mr Fashina said; "Well, the responsibility of the SON is to coordinate the development of relevant standards for products that are traded in Nigeria or imported to Nigeria. But in carrying out that function it works with all relevant stakeholders- regulatory authorities, organised private sector, researchers, consumer associations, among others. So once those standards are developed or in some cases adopted or modified during adoption, we ensure that we receive necessary approval from the Standard Council of Nigeria, SON's governing council.
"Once the standard is approved by the council, the issue of implementation rests entirely on the operator and the regulator in the sector because they were all part of the development of the standards. If ever they have any issue with the implementation of the standard, they bring it to the attention of SON for review, usually after five years of the implementation of an existing standard. Standards are usually minimum consensus above which stakeholders can go but not below."
Mr Fashina added that the instances "where SON runs after the violators are for products that are manufactured locally". He noted there is a mandatory conformity assessment programme and a certification processes those standards mandatorily must undergo.
"For such, we have the responsibility of checking along with other regulators in the industry but for the imported products, our responsibility is that whatever standard we set for them is not different from those set for the ones locally made here because by WTO (World Trade Organisation) rules, we cannot discriminate."
On his part, Garbadeen Muhammed, a media aide to the Minister of State for Petroleum, Timipre Silver, said he was 'indisposed' and could not comment on behalf of his boss.
While the regulatory agencies continue to engage in blame games, the consequences have continued to take a toll on innocent Nigerians.
A recent annual State of the Global Air Report published by the Health Effects Institute (HEI) noted that air quality in Nigeria is among the deadliest globally, with higher than ambient air pollution death rates reportedly caused by environmental hazards and extreme pollution sources such as vehicle emissions, generator fumes, artisanal refineries, crop burning, among others.
Already, Nigeria has the highest maternal mortality in the world and It was recently ranked the global poverty capital.
In 2016 alone, HEI noted that more than 114,000 Nigerians died from air pollution, with its chart noting that there were "150 deaths per age-standardised deaths per 100,000 people attributable to air pollution in Nigeria in 2016 compared to high industrialised countries like China, 117 deaths per 100,000 people; Russia, 62 deaths per 100,000 people; Germany, 22 deaths per 100,000 people; United Kingdom, 21 deaths per 100,000 people; the United States, 21 deaths per 100,000 people; Japan 13 deaths per 100,000 people and Canada, 12 deaths per 100,000 people."
Nigeria is trailing Afghanistan which has 406 deaths per age-standardised deaths per 100,000 people attributable to air pollution; Pakistan, 207, and India, 195 deaths per 100,000 people per country.
According to the latest research, the levels of particulate matter in Port Harcourt and Lagos are said to be 20 per cent worse than could be found in the world's most populated capital city of Delhi in India, where it is observed that emergency levels of photochemical smogs are said to be common.
Also, the World Health Organisation in 2016 said Onitsha was then the world's most polluted city, with the concentration of PM10s (soot particles) recorded to be at 594 micrograms per cubic metre while the WHO's safe limit is given as 66.
The Guardian (UK) report on the development noted that with more than 11 million cars imported into the country, "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."
"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," the newspaper added.
The development, according to SDN, has imposed on Nigeria 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."
Speaking on the phone with PREMIUM TIMES, SDN's Senior Project Officer in charge of environment, Jesse Martin, said his organisation was committed to combating environmental challenges.
He added that relevant authorities were engaged during the research process and that government agencies within the oil and gas sector, and particularly the DPR, were invited to the presentation "but they were not available."
In its recommendations, the SDN advised that fuel quality tests should be immediately carried out nationwide to explore the extent of poor fuel distribution. He noted that improved standards for fuel quality were approved in Nigeria by the SON in 2017, "but enforcement is evidently weak to non-existent by responsible agencies."
"As the issue has reached a severe point, and with the outbreak of COVID-19, there must be no further delay in raising and enforcing existing standards across the supply chain, and for all responsible stakeholders to be held to account. To reduce the impact of the disruption this may temporarily cause to the import of refined fuels into Nigeria, there would need to be simultaneous improvements in public transport and electricity supply to reduce consumption in vehicles and generators," the SDN advised.
The group added that relevant authorities, and particularly Nigeria's ministry of petroleum resources and petroleum technology development fund (PTDF) should consider engaging artisanal oil refiners in plans for domestic refining, "given they are often producing fuels with better characteristics than official fuel supplied to Nigeria."
In a similar vein, the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, ANEEJ, a non-governmental organisation that has been involved in the campaign against dirty fuel importation, blamed the development on 'leadership failure'.
Speaking with our reporter, the group's executive director, David Ugorlor, said it is high time Nigerians fight against dirty fuel imported into the country.
He also challenged the governments of the host countries of the foreign refineries including Belgium and the Netherlands, "to stop the companies from sending such fuel to Nigeria, and the entire West African countries by extension."
He said; "This fight has been on for some time, and the former minister of environment, Aminat Mohammed, tried to ensure the implementation of low sulphuric fuels in the country. I attended a session she co-hosted with an official of the Netherlands on the same subject and many other efforts she led.
"But since the minister left, the promise to join Ghana in the enforcement of low sulphur fuels importation in the country by 2017 has not seen the light of the day. We use this avenue to call on concerned authorities to implement all relevant recommendations because anybody could fall victim of the repercussions of the negligence."