Nigeria Overdue For Environmental Audit —Nnimmo Bassey

Nnimmo Bassey, an internationally acclaimed environmentalist, in this interview with JETHRO IBILEKE, says Nigeria is long overdue for environmental audit

What is the annual turnover of of oil production in Nigeria?

Nobody knows how much crude oil is extracted in Nigeria on a daily or annual basis. The official figures we have are at best, guesstimate. When things are very good, Nigeria produces about 2.2 million barrels of crude oil per day. That’s official. But what the actual figure is is not known, and this is because we don’t have a metering system that would allow a verifiable accountability of crude oil production in the country. It has been a problem that has been published in almost every annual report of Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparent Initiative, NEITI. We need to know how much oil is being produced because if we don’t know how much oil is produced and you depend on figures, you are actually short-changing yourself. Transparency cannot be achieved in that kind of situation, because how can you be transparent, how can you be accountable if you don’t know how much oil is being produced?

So this is the situation. It is a major problem that impacts on our economy and our environment because if you know how much oil is coming from the oil fields, and then you know how much gets to the distribution points, you can now see how much is missing along the lines. In our case in Nigeria, what is missing is either stolen or spilled into the environment. Now we don’t know how much comes from the fields, we only know what we are told gets to the distribution points, so you cannot really say how much is lost. That is why the National Assembly, when debating the 2004 budget, they were saying about 400,000 barrels of oil were being stolen everyday. That was just fiction. You can’t establish the volume by fact. The Minster of Finance used that same figure in 2012 when she was speaking with Financial Times of London in an interview. The ministry of petroleum has used figures like 160,000 barrels being lost a day. Shell itself have said 150,000 barrels is lost from its own facilities alone on a daily basis. These are enormous figures.

•Nnimmo Bassey

There are many countries that don’t produce upto 100,000 barrels a day and they are called oil producing countries. So we don’t simply know how much oil is being produced in Nigeria.

How rampant is oil theft in Nigeria?

Oil theft is an enormous problem in Nigeria, and it appears to have very deep roots. Part of this can be traced to the manner by which oil wells are allocated to individuals and companies. For the transparency of activities in the petroleum sector, we could ask a question: Could the government publish the list of oil wells and who owns them and who is operating them openly in newspapers? Who lifts crude oil from Nigeria? Put the names out in the public. This will help to curtail the impunity in the petroleum sector.

So, right now if the National Assembly people who should have good information could tell us that about 400,000 barrels of oil are lost everyday, that is enormous, that is really rampant and should be very worrying, because we are talking of a huge loss of economic resources that could be utilised in environmental remediation, infrastructural development and to boost other social sectors of the economy, to boost employment and curtail violence and violent activities in the economy. So it is a major problem.

What could have led to the emergence of these so-called ‘illegal refineries’?

Let’s locate it in the stealing of the petroleum sector, because part of the crude oil that is stolen goes to the refineries. Somebody has put the figure of the crude oil stolen at as much as one million barrels a day, that is mind boggling. Somebody has even said as much oil as is being officially exported is also being stolen. These are dramatic assertions and figures, but they have been said by top political leaders over the years. The governor of Delta State has made a statement in this regard, former speaker of House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole has made a statement of that magnitude in the past. These are people who have access to both security and petroleum sector information, so they should have an idea about the gigantic nature of the problem. But let us take the National Assembly figure.

On the issue of illegal refineries, actually, I prefer to call them bush refineries, because the legal refineries are not refining. Those bush refineries cannot and do not have the capacity to absorb the amount of crude oil that is being stolen on a daily basis. So from the 400,000 barrels (the official figure from the National Assembly) that are stolen everyday, they will probably be utilising about 40,000 barrels, that is about 10 per cent, because the equipment they use are very rudimentary. It is almost equivalent to how ogogoro is being refined in the swamps of the Niger Delta; the same technology––boiling the crude and then getting the various petroleum products through fractional distillation.

Now, why has this happened? The first reason is lack of employment opportunities, destruction of natural livelihood opportunities. These are people who could have farmed, who could have fished, who could have gotten jobs one way or the other, and now they don’t have any opportunities, the doors are shut in their faces. Many of them have lost their fishing and farming businesses to oil spillage and gas flaring. The only option left for them is either to lie down somewhere and die or find something else to do. This is what has given rise to bush refineries.

The second cluster of reasons is the fact that in those oil fields where the crude is being mined, you don’t always have access to petroleum products. If you go to the costal area of the Niger Delta, you find very few outlets where you could buy petrol or diesel, and where you can find them, they are far more expensive than what you find in the cities. And so there’s a ready market for any product that could be used to run their boats and run their generators and businesses. The market is there and there is no supply, and so the bush refineries have stepped in to fill the gap.

When you talk about the economy of the bush refineries, you talk about those who tap into the pipelines and facilities, you can not tap into the pipelines in one minute. I will dare say that you cannot even tap into the pipelines in secret because you need experts. Pipelines carry petroleum products under very high pressure. And so any person who doesn’t have the skill tries it, the pipeline will blow up in his face. He will die, he can’t survive it. You need the equipment, you need the technology, you need the skill. Pipelines are not like PVC pipes, they are not like straws for drinking coke. They need to know when the pressure is low enough for them to cut the pipeline. So there has to be intelligence collaboration within the industry. And when the pipelines are tapped from underwater, they need sophisticated equipment.

Because the products would be carried in canoes or barges through the creeks, they need security cover. It’s not a phantom economy, it’s a real physical economy. And so they need to have protection and the technical know-how. But because it doesn’t take one minute or one hour to complete this process, it is possible for them to be detected and stopped. But they have a whole network of collaborators.

This is no mere imagination. A lot of the stolen crude goes out of the shores of Nigeria. Foreign crews have been arrested with their ships. In the past, a whole ship that was detained by the Navy disappeared from custody, a ship with 11,000 barrels of crude oil disappeared from custody and when it was eventually intercepted on the high sea, what was found in it was no longer crude oil but sea water. So this thing has a long history and people have been using it to exploit the system.

But sadly, from the analysis I’ve seen, the least beneficiaries of this process are those people who are running the bush refineries, they are mere labourers, poisoning themselves, getting sick while those who tap the pipelines get the bulk of the money.

What are the negative effects of destroying these bush refineries and their products on the environment and on humans?

The petroleum industry in Nigeria is a huge tragedy and a huge scandal. The pollution from crude oil spillage from both the legal and the illegal refineries is enormous. If you go to Ubeji community behind Warri Refinery or go to Eleme area, Onne area in Rivers State, you see that the waters are heavily polluted by the official refineries. Now, these bush refineries are actually very poisonous to their own environments also because they are neither regulated nor standardised. They burn crude oil in the open, releasing massive amounts of dangerous chemical elements into the atmosphere, poisoning communities who live them, directly impacting negatively on the environment around them.

The process itself of the bush refineries is highly polluting, their environments are extremely messy. It is unimaginable that Nigerians will work in such environments just for economic survival. It is something that ought to be addressed in a very decisive way.

What alternative methods would you suggest for destroying these bush refineries?

The manner of destruction by the Joint Task Force doesn’t solve the problem. It actually compounds the problem.

The refineries are simple modular contraptions, SMC. If you burn one, it is easy for them to build another one. It is like a moving target. So burning them is a very inefficient way to tackle the problem. Burning the bush refineries may help the JTF to create a catalogue of what they destroyed, but it doesn’t tackle the problem. It compounds the problem by further polluting the environment, exposing Nigerians to danger. Of course they also bomb the barges and canoes and articulated trucks used for conveying the stolen crude oil. All these have direct impact on the ecology, the terrestrial and aquatic lives and the individuals and peoples living around these places who depend directly on water and other natural resources.

So when they destroy these things that way, they are creating toxic situations for the people. They eat fish laden with metals. Not surprisingly the health and life expectancy in the Niger Delta is the lowest.

What could be done?

There are two things I will suggest immediately. One: Legalising and regulating bush refinery. They are illegal right now, but they are a reality. The government should register all the bush refineries and regulate their kind of artisanal refining. They should set the standard of equipment they must use and standard of products that must come out of them so that only those who have the capacity to meet those standards will run the refineries. Those who don’t run their refineries in that standard should be shut down, and if they insist on carrying on illegally, they should be prosecuted.

This kind of modular refineries could be set up by the government and get these guys with the skills and integrate them. We are still wasting a lot of money on phantom importation of petroleum products. So the government could set up modular refineries and employ people with this skill. It doesn’t have to be refineries run by individuals, it could be run by the government. It is like an improvement on the existing scenario.

Secondly, wherever the refineries are found, rather than bomb or burn them, you dismantle them. You know the military behaves like someone who sees every problem like a nail that must be hammered; they are trained to destroy things. We need to get military engineers into the Niger Delta, not people toting guns looking for what to blow up. If you find refineries that are not working according to standard, you dismantle them. These things can be carted away in boats; they are not massive installations, they are drums and pipes and sticks for fire. It is very rudimentary, very easy to dismantle and taken away. That should be the major thrust of dismantling the bush refineries. Bombing or burning should never be an option.

But the good news is that the Niger Delta as at now is not completely a lost case. That is why we are still campaigning about the Niger Delta. But it is an issue that requires urgent action, not just a political solution. The bush refineries are a new phenomenon, things that came up within the last one decade. But the pollution of the gulf has been on for about five decades. We need a thorough clean-up of the Niger Delta.