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By NBF News
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It can arguably be said that the footprints of the oil and gas sector on the nation can be the measure of the fifty years of Nigeria's political independence. Although there are manifestations in other sectors, the scars inflicted on the oil fields have translated into scars on our national psyche, on our political framings, on our agriculture, economy and other facets of national life. When we review the Niger Delta environment, we are in a sense reviewing the environment of our nation.

The Niger Delta is one of the most prodigious producers of crude oil of very fine quality in the world. It has attracted the oil majors and minors at both up and down stream of the sector. Although the oil and gas sector has had heavy government involvement, the oil majors have remained the operators and they have equally had overbearing influence on how the sector is regulated and run.

And example of this can be seen in the set up of the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), an agency that replaced the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA). The act setting up NESREA allows a space on its advisory board for the oil industry representation but goes ahead to stipulate that this agency would not have any oversight with regard to environmental pollutions caused by the oil industry.

It is absolutely amazing that the most polluting sector should be excluded from environmental standards and regulation while at the same time retaining a high position of ensuring that other sectors keep in line with national environmental standards and regulations.

In the course of 52 years of commercial oil exploration and extraction in the Niger Delta, the environment has taken such a beating that were it human it should be dead or at best in a severely wounded state. If it were dead, all that could be done would be to bury it. Let us view it as a severely wounded environment. When an environment is wounded, the path to renewal is that of remediation.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines remediation as the action of remedying something, in particular of reversing or stopping environmental damage. Before we can talk of ways by which the Niger Delta environment could be remediated, it is needful for us to consider snapshots of what has happened to it. Has it been wounded by accident or is there an innately destructive propensity of the industry? Obviously there is hardly any industry that does not speak of best practices and even corporate responsibility.

As for the oil sector, their best practices have been turned on their head by spectacular failures that have trailed their activities. The innocuous impacts that trail exploration activities - such as deforestation when seismic lines are being cut or damage through vibrations when explosives are used to gather seismic data - often go unnoticed and unrecorded.

These seismic lines are cut through forests and farmlands and creeks. Shell alone is said to be responsible for 56,000 kilometres of seismic lines in Bayelsa and Rivers States. The total length of pipelines in the Niger Delta is currently estimated at 7000 km. These pose peculiar environmental challenges and also constitute avenues for deforestation and an assortment of dangers.

The production stages of crude oil impact the environment in ways that are hardly spoken about. Two ways these happen is in the handling and disposal of produced water as well as drilling mud. Looking away from our shores we note that the North Sea has mostly offshore oil fields. Scientists have found piles of drilling mud in the area that go as high as 30 metres or 10 storeys.

These toxic muds are mixed with drilling scraps and impact marine life up to 500 metres radius. Records have it that there are up to 1.5 million tons of mud and other contaminants therei. These smoother some aquatic species, poison others and generally diminish the quality of the habitat. The question is what about our own Niger Delta and the continental shelf? How much drilling muds and scraps pile up in our offshore region?

These hazardous and toxic materials ought to be treated to acceptable levels of toxicity and then stored or disposed into the environment in the case of produced water, for example. In the case of the Niger Delta, it is anyone's guess to what level these toxic materials are treated before being dumped and pumped into the ecosystem. The World Bank review of the Niger Delta environment (1995) indicated that up to 600,000 barrels of produced water was being pumped into the Niger Delta environment daily.

According to Amnesty International, 'some companies appear to be aware that the discharge of produced water is not a good practice. Total, for example, told Amnesty International that it is trying to stop all wastewater discharge. SPDC, which discharges wastewater into the Bonny River estuary and the Warri River, has stated that it is trying to improve the management of this 'major waste product'. However, figures from SPDC for 2002-2005 show a significant rise in oil discharged to surface waters as a consequence of produced water - from 226 tonnes in 2002 to 481 tonnes in 2005, although the volume of produced water discharged reduced from a high of 42,994'000m3 in 2005 to 16,885'000 m3 in 2006.'ii

Another very destructive impact of oil extraction activities comes from canalisation that is necessary for the accessing of hinterland oil fields that are not too far from the coast lines. Such canals allow oil companies to take in their barges, rigs and other equipments from the sea into the onshore fields. The canals bring in salt water and the salinization of the fresh water systems mean severe alteration of the fisheries as well as water supply for communities living in the area. They also encourage coastal erosion, creating serious impacts on coastal communities.

The best known impacts of oil extraction comes from the pipelines explosions and fires that have captured media headlines and peoples imaginations. Hundreds of lives have been lost to the explosions and fires beyond the Niger Delta. For example, a number of incidents have been recorded in Lagos, at the Atlas Cove and in the Ijegun areas. . Many of the spills resulted in major fires in which as in the case of Jesse in 1999, over one hundred men, women and children were roasted alive.

Oil Spills
It is conservatively estimated that between 1976 and 1996 a total of 2,369,470.40 barrels of crude oil was spilled into the rivers and lands of the Niger Deltaiii. Oil spills constitute one of the most obvious and high impacts on the environment of the Niger Delta. Recent numbers mentioned by the NOSDRA is that there were up to 3200 oil spill incidents in the last for years. Previous record was that of about 300 oil spills every year. In addition we are informed that there are about 2400 oil spill sites that are yet to be attended to. With the new figure of 3200 spills in four years, we now have the indication that there are about 800 spills a year. That approximates to more than two oil spills every day.

The Nigerian government documented 6,817 spills between 1976 and 2001—practically one a day for 25 years—but analysts suspect that the real number may be ten times higher (National Geographic, Feb 2007). A 2007 report by Nigerian scientists and the World Conservation Union concludes that 'an estimated 1.5million tons of oil has spilled into the Niger Delta ecosystem over the past 50 years, representing about 50 times the estimated volume spilled in the Exxon Valdez oil spill.'

The implication of this is that for every year of our independence we have had one Exxon Valdez spill equivalent. The oil spills have damaged rivers, creeks, swamps, farmlands and forests. As a consequence of this potable water has been affected, fish populations have died, and farmers have lost income because of soil destruction. The impacts on human health are enormous and include cancers and birth defects.

With a high number of spills an attempt to give a list would be futile.

The Environmental Rights Action (Friends of the Earth Nigeria), an environmental justice advocacy group, has published three books of reports and testimonies with regard to oil spills and other environmental incidents in the Nigeria.iv We can only mention a few incidents here: The Escravos spill of 1978 in which 300,000 barrels of crude oil was spilled into the coastal waters and Shell's 1978 spill caused by tank failure at Forcados Terminal in which 580,000 barrels were spewed

Texaco's Funima-5 offshore blow out in 1980 that released 400,000 barrels of oil

Mobil's spill at Idoho in 1998 with a reported release of 40,000 barrels of crude oil.

The Shell Spill in 2008 at Ikot Ada Udoh where a capped well failed and spewed an unreported amount of crude oil for months before it was stopped

Agip oil spills at Kalaba, Bayelsa State raged for over two months starting from February 2009 before it was stopped.

Exxon oil spills at Ibeno, Akwa Ibom State in May and June 2010.

The several oil spills and fires in Ikarama and other Bayelsa State communities.

Gas Flares
The environmental and health impacts of the routine burning of gas associated with crude oil extraction are of the great concern. This practice, popularly known as gas flaring, has been going on in the Niger Delta for decades and at close to 200 locations. Routine gas flaring has been illegal since 1984 pursuant to section 3 of Nigeria's Associated Gas Reinjection Act, 1979.

Since that date, flaring of gas became essentially outlawed and could be permitted only on a case-by-case basis through the issuance of a certificate of permit to flare by the minister or other authorised official. Even with the permit, the entity flaring the gas is required to pay a fine. It is doubtful if the payment of fine was a tacit approval for flaring seeing that the fines has been and remain mere tokens which the corporations have been quite comfortable with.

It has also been said that even the fines paid for gas flaring have been accounted for as part of the production cost of crude oil, meaning that the fines are deducted before oil earnings are shared according to agreed to formula for so doing between the government and the corporations. This means, in a sense, that the government has simply been paying the fines to itself.

It is believed that worldwide 168 billion cubic meters of natural gas is flared yearly and this is equivalent to 25 per cent of US gas consumption and 30 per cent of EU gas consumption. In Nigeria alone, about 23 billion cubic meters is flared annually making up about 13 per cent of gas flared globally. The greenhouse gas emissions through gas flaring are put at 400 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents yearly amounting to a net estimated loss of revenue of about $72 billion in government revenues for the period 1970-2006 or about $2.5 billion annually.

However, Niger Delta peoples and communities have doggedly fought for environmental sanity and for the respect of their human rights through various peaceful means including using the space provided by the law courts in Nigerian as well as beyond the shores. On November 14, 2005, the Federal High Court sitting in Benin and presided over by Justice V.C Nwokorie ordered stoppage of gas flaring in Iwerekhan Community by April 2007 saying the practice 'violates the fundamental right to life and dignity.'

But rather than enforce the court judgment and even a December 31, 2007 deadline set in 1999, the Federal Government announced that the deadline had been shifted to December 31, 2008. That deadline came and went without being enforced.

What followed was a parade of dates from the Senate (December 2010), the Federal Government (December 2011) and the oil corporations (December 2013).

At the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Copenhagen in December 2009 the government teamed up with carbon speculators tried to sell to the world the idea that they would fight climate change by utilising gas to generate power through the clean development mechanism (CDM). Through the CDM, the corporations and the government would receive carbon credits that they could then trade and reap enormous sums of money. This may make business sense, but ethically this is another insult to the dying environment and peoples of the Niger Delta because one cannot justify a claim of carbon credits for halting an illegal activity.

The Impacts
Besides releasing tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the toxic cocktail resulting from gas flaring equally stoke the air with particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carcinogenic substances such as dioxin, benzene and toluene. The consequences of gas flaring are serious health impacts in the form of respiratory illnesses, asthma, blood disorders, cancer, painful breathing and chronic bronchitis, among others. In addition the sulphur and nitrogen oxides in the flared gas mix with atmospheric moisture and come down as acid rain, damaging vegetation and corroding corrugated iron roof sheets.

Oil spills, produced water and drilling mud and other hazardous wastes generated by the oil sector constitute severe health and environmental atrocities that require urgent and thorough remediation.

Remediation Any serious environmental remediation effort in the Niger Delta must be preceded by a comprehensive environmental audit.

The Nigerian government has a responsibility to commission and pay for the comprehensive audit of the environment of the Niger Delta, and of the entire nation, ensuring that the process is transparent and participatory. The audit should produce a compendium of the environmental incidents in the region indicating the scope, type, dates and actors related to the incidents.

The clean up should include the halting of all gas flares (including shutting down no-compliant flow stations) and replacement of aged pipelines. In addition, all waste disposal sites, including those offshore, must be documented and scrutinised to ensure they are adequately designed and built to the best standards. The audit would include testing the creeks, streams, rivers and other water bodies in the region to ascertain the safety levels of the waters. The soils would also need to be tested, as would the health condition of the peoples.

The environmental impact assessment law of 1992 should be strictly enforced in the region and must not be allowed to keep on the perfunctory track as appears to be the case now. Communities and affected peoples should also be fully compensated when impacted by incidents in their environments. The current compensation regime requires urgent review as the amounts provided are gross underestimates and are decades off course.

Following the audit, a comprehensive system of detoxification would then ensure. A situation where community contractors with no experience whatsoever insist on being awarded contracts to clean up oil spills must be discouraged and halted. For this and other related reasons there is need for systematic popular education on the toxic nature of oil industry products and why they need to be handled with suitable materials and knowledge. The oil companies only need education on community environmental/human rights to enable them relate in acceptable ways with the peoples.

With a remediated environment the people would be able to return to productive economic activities and recover their livelihoods. This is the major route to restoring peace in the oil fields. Without environmental remediation, whatever else is done is superficial and will only produce temporary results.

Another related action that must be taken is that of halting oil thefts in the region.

The massive oil thefts by petty thieves and oil barons must be tackled and halted. One way to ensure that this happens is the empowerment of regulatory agencies such as the Directorate of Petroleum Resources to measure the volumes of oil extracted from the oil wells and not merely receive information of export volumes from oil corporations. What happens between the oil wells and the export terminals tell a lot about oil thefts, spills and environmental impacts.