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Burning the Midnight Oil

Oil rig flares pollute night skies

President Obama must combat environmental racism that leaves US oil companies free to pollute Africa.

Whilst much has been written about the BP deep sea oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico little if anything is known about BP, Shell, Chevron Exxon and activities in Nigeria and other African states.

Here the spill dwarfs that currently being experienced by the United States. However, neither UK, Nigerian nor US Governments held their domestic based, international oil companies to account in quite the same way that President Obama has. If the US President is to avoid charges of double standards he will need to tackle the environmental racism prevalent in US oil companies operations outside America.

The fact is in the Nigeria Delta the African people are poor and largely dispossessed. That fact has meant that international oil companies have been allowed to get away with a level of oil pollution that would not be tolerated anywhere else in the developed world.

Environmental devastation, oil flaring, serious leakages, and a supine and greedy Nigerian government make the Niger Delta one of the most polluted places on the planet.

Shell’s Opolo-Epie facility is the newest gas flare in the Niger Delta. And it gives the lie to claims from oil multinationals and the Nigerian government that they are close to bringing an end to the destructive and wasteful practice of gas flaring.

“This is environmental racism,” said Alagoa Morris, an investigator with a local group, Environmental Rights Action, who regularly risks arrest to monitor activities at the heavily guarded oil and gas installations.

“What we are asking for is that oil companies should have to meet the same standards in Nigeria that they do operating in their own countries.”

The Opolo-Epie plant is set to join at least 100 other flares burning across the swamps, creeks and forests of this oil-producing region, filling the atmosphere with toxins, seeding the clouds with acid rain and polluting the soil.  The gas flares, some of which have been burning constantly since the 1960s, are visible from space.

In a country where more than 60 per cent of the people have no reliable electricity supply, the satellite images show the flares burning more brightly than the lights of Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos.

Medical studies have shown the gas burners contribute to an average low life expectancy in the Delta region of 43 years. The area also has Nigeria’s highest infant mortality rate – 12 per cent of newborns fail to see out their first year.

The process of burning off unwanted “associated gas” brought up when oil is pumped out of the ground has been illegal in Nigeria since 1984. The government has set three separate deadlines for stopping the practice – the latest of which falls at the end of this year – but still it continues.

While Nigerian officials are claiming record reductions in the amount of gas flared, independent oil and gas experts believe flaring is, in fact, reaching historic highs. Many observers attribute last year’s much-trumpeted reduction to militancy in the Niger Delta that halved oil production.
“There is an obvious correlation between militancy, reduced oil production and reduced flaring,” explained Joseph Hurstcroft, executive director of Stakeholder Democracy Network, a respected rights group working in the region.

“The figures in the Delta are never clear but we are expecting to see an increase in flaring now that production is back up.”

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) claims to have reduced flaring to 1.9 billion standard cubic feet per day, or 30 per cent of total production. But a confidential report by international energy consultants, seen by The Independent newspaper, puts the figure at 2.5 or 40 per cent of total production.

The scale of the waste is staggering. If put through a modern, combined-cycle power station, this quantity of natural gas could fuel about a quarter of Britain’s power needs. It is equivalent to more than one third of the natural gas produced in the UK’s North Sea oil and gas fields, and would meet the entire energy requirements of German industry.

The pollution generated from this flaring has been measured at up to 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, with unknown quantities of the far more damaging greenhouse gas: methane.

What is going on in the Niger Delta is a “continuing economic, political and environmental disaster”, according to Chris Cragg, an independent oil and gas expert who regularly visits the area.

“It is one of the largest single pointless emissions of greenhouse gas on the planet, with obvious implications for climate change that will not only affect Nigeria, but also the rest of the world.”

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