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A World Bank research conducted about two years ago revealed that Nigeria loses about $2.5 billion annually to gas flare. Despite this huge economic loss, oil corporations operating in the country have been shifting the goal post for the deadline on gas flaring. However, environmental activists have urged the Federal Government not to extend the deadline beyond January 1, 2008. Godwin Haruna writes In Iwerekhan community in Ughelli local government council of Delta State, growing food crops remains a very difficult task for the inhabitants, who are mostly farmers. The other occupation that sustained their forebears besides farming, is fishing, but this too, is gone. With their major means of livelihood gone, the community also suffers from routine hardship brought on them by the loss of their shelter when the corrugated iron sheets mostly used on their roofs is worn out by the effects of harsh environment. The community also contends with strange ailments, which have made life rough and meaningless. According to the community leaders spoken to by THISDAY in March this year, their current problems were all brought on them by oil exploration activities with its concomitant gas flares and pollution of the land.

According to experts, gas flare or flare stack is an elevated vertical stack or chimney found on oil wells or oil rigs, and in refineries, chemical plants and landfills used for burning off unusable waste gas or flammable gas and liquids released by pressure relief valves during unplanned over-pressuring of plant equipment. Simply put, it is the burning off of associated gas, which sends a cocktail of poisons into the atmosphere. The burning of associated gas, otherwise referred to as gas flaring, is characterised by the emission of a toxic cocktail that includes methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Experts contend that this is at the root of all the problems plaguing the Iwerekhan community.

For decades, gas flaring has been used to separate crude oil from the associated gases that are extracted with it, but Nigeria flares more gas today than any nation in the world after Russia, even though it is only the world's eighth largest oil producer.

Civil society groups in the Niger Delta region have warned that the government is destroying communities' health and Nigeria's environment by flouting laws against gas flaring, a technique used in oil production. Addressing the media on the issue in Lagos last week, Mr. Nnimmo Bassey, executive director, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), said the growing impact on man and the environment necessitated a World Bank joint public/private global partnership in 2002 to find ways to cut the deadly emission put at 390 million tons of carbon dioxide yearly.

Nnimmo stated that in Nigeria, gas flares have been on since the early 1960s in the Niger Delta and offshore where over 100 flare sites still emit the toxic cocktail. “It is estimated that about 2.5 billion standard cubic feet of natural gas, put at over $2.5 billion in revenue is lost through flaring… A more recent research showed that if Nigeria harnessed flared gas and puts it to use as an energy option, it would solve almost 75 per cent of Africa’s energy crisis with the exception of South Africa”, he said.

He stated that flared gas has been identified as the major cause of global warming and acid rain, which acidifies lakes, streams and damages vegetation. He added that acid rain results when sulphur and nitrogen oxides mix with moisture in the atmosphere.

“Gas flaring is a major contributor to the stock of green house gases in the atmosphere thus adding to the climate change chaos. Continuation of gas flaring is a direct negation of the determined stand taken by nations of the world to flight climate change in practical terms. Gas flaring contributes to reduction in farm yields but with more far reaching implications on man in form of respiratory illnesses, asthma, blood disorders, cancer, painful breathing and chronic bronchitis, among others”, Nnimmo said.

According to the environmentalist, all oil-prospecting companies in Nigeria are guilty of gas flaring. He said the biggest culprits are Shell Petroleum Development Company, ExxonMobil and Chevron. “The listed companies recently cited insecurity in the Niger Delta and poor funding, among others as factors militating against achieving zero-flares in the Niger Delta. This argument reveals the urgent need for the Federal Government to renegotiate the so-called Joint Venture agreements by which the corporations rip off the state and the people”, he said.

He added that Shell had previously said it would end flares in all its production facilities by 2008, but did not have any concrete plan of action to this effect except the expansion of its liquefied Natural Gas project. This, he added, is the principal avenue to be used to monitise the associated gas currently being flared. Quoting from Shell’s Sustainability Report 2006, Nnimmo said the company had asserted that they would end gas flaring in 2008 all over the world except in Nigeria. The incredulous reason they cited for this, he said, is inaccessibility of some of their locations!

Also, ExxonMobil, he said promised to end flares in 2004 and earmarked the East Area Gas Project (EAGP) as the principal project to achieve this. However, like Shell, the promise has remained a mirage. On the other hand, Chevron, he said, promised to achieve zero flares in its facilities by 2006, hinging its attainment on the Escravos Gas Project Phase 2 and 3. Like the first two, he added that the company has also come up with the lame excuse of insecurity for failing to meet this target. He said the first attempt at forcing oil corporations operating in the Niger Delta to end flares was in 1969 when General Yakubu Gowon’s administration ordered the oil companies to put in place facilities that will utilise associated gas within five years of their commencement of operations. When after five years they could not do anything, he said the goal post was then shifted to 1979 by the same government before it was overthrown in 1975. However, he said the inability of the companies to meet the new date necessitated the fixing of 1984 as the zero flare date and this was backed with sanctions for defaulters.

“An Associated Gas re-injection Act of 1979 No. 99 was introduced, demanding that oil corporations operating in Nigeria should produce detailed plans for gas utilisation as well as guarantee zero flares by January 1, 1984, unless they had a case by case exemption obtainable from the minister. By 1983 the oil multinationals again raised fresh hurdles why 1984 would not be feasible in meeting the deadline. The deadlines thereafter were shifted at the pleasure of the government in response to the pressure of the multinational corporations. These shifts were executive orders and were not backed by law”, Nnimmo said.

In response to local and international pressure, he said the Federal Government pledged to halt gas flares in Nigeria and set January 1, 2008 as zero flare date, with sanctions for defaulters. “Again, on December 17, 2007, yet another shift was announced, this time, with a deadline fixed for December 31, 2008. This is one shift too many, especially coming from a government that believes in the rule of law!” Nnimmo said. He said the changing fines payable by defaulting companies was making merchandise of an environmental disaster and monetising the misery of the people for the benefit of government coffers and to secure the obscene profits of the corporations.

He said the Federal High Court, which ruled on the case brought by Iwherekan community had ordered Shell to stop gas flaring in the community by April 2007 since it violates the fundamental right to life and dignity. Justice V. C. Nwokorie ruled emphatically that gas flaring was a gross violation of fundamental right to life.

“Gas flaring is an illegal activity. It is an assault on the human rights of the people of the Niger Delta and of Nigeria as whole. Executive fiat and imposition of fines can neither make the illegal activity legal nor can it eliminate the health and environmental hazards the activity unleashes”, Nnimmo said. Therefore, he called on the Federal Government to abide by its avowed commitment to the rule of law by compelling the oil corporations to respect the January 1, 2008 deadline.

Also, in an open letter to President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua on the issue, Mr. Akinbode Oluwafemi, programme manager, ERA/FoEN, noted: “Since 1979, the multinational oil companies have simply ignored government deadlines and court orders to end gas flaring… Since gas flaring contributes to global warming and the climate change crisis, it is of concern to citizens around the world. As fellow human beings, we also demand the end to suffering of the Niger Delta people whose lives, health and livelihoods are harmed for the benefit of greedy multinational corporations”.

Oluwafemi urged the president to reject the call by the companies for another 2010 deadline, adding: “Calling for higher fines from defaulting oil corporations merely provides cover for the industry to continue an environmentally unacceptable activity. It may add money to your national coffers, but money cannot pay for the lives and dignity of the Niger Delta people”.
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