NIGERIA: Inefficient Gas Flaring Remains Unchecked

LAGOS - "The Federal Government policy to stop gas flaring commences on Jan. 1, 2008,
and any company which flares gas after that time would be shut down." This was
the strong warning from the Nigerian government in October last year to
multinational oil companies operating in the country.

Gas flaring continued in 2008 in defiance of the Nigerian government's
warning that the act would not be tolerated in the new year.

Responding to pressure from oil companies, the Nigerian government pushed
the deadline back on Jan. 6. A press statement issued by Levi Ajuonuma,
group general manager of public affairs for the state-owned Nigerian
National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), announced a shift of deadline from
December 2007 to December 2008.

Since as far back as 1979, multinational oil companies have been successful
in coercing the government to push back the deadlines it sets to stop gas
flaring. The oil industry accounts for more than 90 percent of Nigeria's
export earnings.

"The fires are so large and so close to our homes and farms that we feel the
heat. We know no darkness because they burn brightly for 24 hours every
day," said Che Ibegwura of the Egi community.

After so many shifts in deadlines, Ibegwura is fed up and suspects that the
new deadline may not be realistic. "I suspect that gas flaring will not stop on
Dec. 31 2008, it will not happen, they have been fooling us all these years,"
he says, stressing that, "The oil companies and the Nigerian government are
only concerned about proceeds from oil, they never consider the health of the
people. Their greatest concern is profit."

Ibegwura has good reason to doubt the viability of the new deadline. The
government has shifted past deadlines, giving into persistent lobbies from
the very influential multinational oil companies. The companies insist that
Nigeria needs several more years to stop gas flaring.

Nigeria flares the highest quantity of gas in the world. The practice takes
place in the oil bearing Niger Delta region where huge balls of gas fires
burning widely and noisily from the end of long stacks are a common sight.

The gas, a by-product of oil exploitation, is being burnt off because oil
companies neither utilize nor recycle it. NNPC says that about 40 percent of
gas produced in the country -- almost 23 billion cubic metres -- is burned

The World Bank estimates that Nigeria loses about 2.5 billion dollars annually
to gas flare.

Some of the largest multinational oil companies in the world -- including the
U.K. and Dutch owned Shell, the French company Total, and the American
companies Mobil and Chevron -- are responsible for the bulk of the scores of
gas flares burning in Nigeria.

"Late last year, I was looking forward to Jan. 2008 with great expectation,
hoping that the government will compel the oil companies to stop gas
flaring," says Ibegwura. He remains disappointed that his expectations were
not met. "It is already 2008, but the gas flares have not stopped they are still
burning with fury."

Ibegwura -- whose Egi community has three gas flares and is surrounded by
many more -- says he has seen how much damage gas flares have inflicted
on his community in the last 40 years. Ibegwura is 76 years old.

"I am older than the gas flares in my community and I can tell you how much
they have changed this place, he told IPS.

Ibegwura could not help looking back over the years with nostalgia. "Before
gas flaring started here I remember very well that our environment was in its
natural state. At that time the leaves were green, the air was clean, rain water
was free of pollutants and it was safe to drink."

He says all that changed from the mid-1960s when multinational oil
companies started flaring gas in the community as they drill for oil.

Bode Olufemi, of the Nigerian advocacy group Environmental Rights Action
(ERA), stresses that oil has become a curse for the communities. "Gas flaring
which has been on for close to five decades is one of the biggest
environmental problems associated with oil exploration and exploitation in
the Niger Delta," he told IPS.

Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer, but in the oil bearing Niger Delta
region where virtually all the oil comes from, local communities say they have
not benefited from the billions of dollars made annually from oil revenue.
Rather they say the oil industry is imposing a heavy environmental burden on

"The release of these cocktail of gases into the atmosphere, which the people
inhale, makes them susceptible to acid rain and a lot of diseases like
bronchitis and skin problems," says Olufemi.

Bashir Koledoye, technical director of Geoscience Solutions Limited, an oil
consultancy firm based in Lagos, traces the problem of stopping the practice
to the late 1950's when oil exploitation started in Nigeria. "There were no
plans to stop gas flaring from the onset. Originally the interest of the oil
companies was oil, gas was an associated product that was not needed and
had to be gotten rid off in order to get the oil," he told IPS.

He says it will be difficult to set a firm date to stop flaring given the huge
investments required to set up facilities that can harness the large quantities
of gas currently being flared.

"Talking as a professional and as a technical person, I can only tie a stop date
to flaring to what is technically and financially viable," Koledoye said. "For
now, we don't have enough projects to utilize the gas produced with oil."

Koledoye warns that in attempting to stop gas flaring because of
environmental concerns caution has to be exercised. "Stoppage of gas flaring
might stop environmental damage, but it might also stop the oil business
itself. This, many argue, is the very reason the Nigerian government is
reluctant to take drastic measures to stop gas flaring.

Environmentalists remain furious. Olufemi says the continuous flaring of gas
in the Niger Delta is a demonstration of the fact that the Nigerian
government and multinational oil companies are insensitive to the plight of
the people of the region. For him, drastic measures have to be taken to stop
gas flaring. "When something like gas flaring has a direct impact on the
health of the people, on their livelihood and their environment, what do you
do? You've got to remove the problem so that the people can live a much
healthier life."

After years of waiting for a stoppage to gas flaring, Ibegwura has turned
philosophical. "I look forward to a day when gas flaring will stop. Everything
that has a beginning must have an end."


AMP Section Name:Environment
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