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Intimidating Gas Flares And Oil Field Fires

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The gathering of environmental scholars, activists, government officials, elders and community people for the annual conference of the ‘Environment Outreach’ magazine, lived up to its billing as one of the very important environmental conferences in Nigeria. The event, hosted by Noble Akenge, took place in Benin City, Nigeria on July 2, 2019, and saw a high turnout of professors from the universities as well as a number of royal fathers.

Noble Akenge, the publisher of ‘Environment Outreach’ and host of the conference, noted that this was the 10th in a series started in 2008 and has been rotating within Nigerian cities, having held previously in Port Harcourt, Abuja, Warri, Uyo, Yenagoa, Lagos, Abuja, Calabar and Owerri.

The keynote lecture delivered by Salisu Dahiru, national project coordinator of Nigerian Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP) focused on “Managing Land Degradation in Nigeria: The Challenges, Actions and Remediations.” The Challenges, Actions and Remediations.” Dahiru’s paper laid bare, the deep degradation of our environment, efforts being made to ameliorate the situation and the big tasks that must be tackled. His mentor, Ambassador Godknows Igali, who was an initiator of the NEWMAP project was also present.

The Royal Father of the day was the Emir of Nasarawa, Alhaji Ibrahim Usman Jibril. I must say it was a disappointment that the Emir could not make it to the conference because some of us have not had the privilege of meeting him in-person since he assumed the royal office. As a former Minister of State for Environment and as an environmentalist, he would, no doubt, have had something memorable to say at the event. Other royal fathers at the event stood up to show that holding a traditional title as a community elder, king or leader, does not exempt anyone from environmental impacts.

So, when King Bubaraye Dakolo, the Ibenanaowei of Ekpetiama Kingdom, Bayelsa State, took the microphone to describe the environment of his community, everyone was compelled to pay attention. He began by asserting that the livelihood of his people is sustained by the River Nun – a tributary of the River Niger after which the late poet, Gabriel Okara, wrote the famous poem, ‘The Call of River Nun.’  He condemned the activities of oil companies in his community, mentioning in particular, the massive gas flare at Shell’s facility at Gbaran Ubie, which he said was merely 500 metres from his palace. He called it “an intimidating gas flare in this part of the world!”

In apparent reference to the high stack from where the gas is flared, he stated that the stack was elevated to ensure that the deadly pollution has the widest spread possible.

In a video issued in the #RiseForBayelsa campaign, the king states that in the past, a young person could dash to the River Nun to catch some fish for an evening snack and return with a bucket full of aquatic delicacies. In contrast, today, an all-night fishing expedition may not yield up to 3 kilogrammes of fish.

He also spoke of how an oil spill upstream impacts several communities downstream. He equally spoke of the poor response to oil spills by international oil companies. He decried the manner by which oil companies ignore oil spills and allow them to keep polluting the environment for days, weeks and months.

That reminds us of the recent oil well fire at Chevron’s Ojumole Oil Well 1 in Ugbo Kingdom, Ilaje local government area of Ondo State. Chevron, a presumed high-tech and responsible oil company, could only put out the fire after the inferno had raged for over two months. Besides the fire was the accompanying oil spill that spread to other communities in the manner King Dakolo stated.

We recall also that Chevron had a gas rig explosion on January 16, 2012, an incidence where two workers presumably lost their lives. That happened off the coast of Koluama in Bayelsa State. The fire raged for about one month before it was somehow put out. Koluama remains one of the most neglected communities in the Niger Delta. The community got ripped into two by oil company operations that triggered heavy erosion and land loss in the area and is now a split community known as Koluama I and Koluama II. They still lack adequate water supply and depend on rain water or shallow ponds as they cannot drink the salty water from the sea. The communities are also still waiting for the health centre built there to be equipped and manned. The health centre has no nurses and a doctor visits there just once in two months! This is the sorry picture of the fate shared by many other Niger Delta communities.

Sadly, gas flares and oil spills continue to be treated rather casually in Nigeria despite the efforts of National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA). There is still little attention paid to the health impact on the people and the environment. The companies claim that routine gas flaring became standard industry practice from the early days of petroleum exploitation in Nigeria due to a lack of market for natural gas. If that was so, why is routine gas flaring still being tolerated since the Act has been outlawed in 1984? Why is it still going on seeing there is a market for the gas now?

And what about the warning that Shell’s action elicited in 1963 as seen in the confidential communication of a British trade commissioner to the UK Foreign Office?

It is obvious that the current business architecture of the petroleum sector supports environmental bad behaviour and blocks sanctions since the regulator and the regulated remain in the incestuous relationship cemented by the subsisting Joint Venture Agreements. The oil companies prefer to retain that relationship and do whatever they can to ensure that the regulatory regime is not altered through for example, the Petroleum Industry Bill(s). What the industry terms standard practice, even in 1963, was nothing short of unacceptable double standards.

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