Oil Gas Industry Activity and the Niger Delta Environment: The Role of Environmental Law

Simple societies were, and still are, driven by human and animal power, and utilise(d) wood, charcoal and dung as fuels. In the modern and industrialised societies, energy and fuel production have become much more sophisticated. Today, commercial energy is essential for development. However, the commercial energy production and use are associated with grave environmental hazards, public health impairments and damage to properties.

The oil and gas has become the centre of current industrial development and economic activities. And there are links between oil exploration and production activities and the incumbent environment, health, socio-economic and political problems in the oil-bearing communities, especially in the Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

The fact that the right to explore the oil logically demands responsibilities of the government and operators to protect the environment and public health from associated hazards is practically not given any consideration. The economic and political benefits are given significantly more weight by the government and operators than the resulting damage to the environment, human health and property.

Waste Associated With Oil & Gas Activity
Practically all stages and operations of oil & gas exploration and production are accompanied by undesirable discharges of solid, liquid and gaseous wastes. They include many hundreds of individual hazardous compounds.

Solid/Semi-Solid Wastes
Inevitably, all kinds of drilling are associated with drilling wastes, mainly drilling muds and cuttings and produced sands. The good environmental management practice is to treat these wastes on-site and/or transport them to off-site locations for treatment and disposed of them in environmentally sound manner.

The severity of environmental hazard of drilling muds and cuttings depends on the type and formulations (water or oil) of drilling fluid used and the geology of the location. The drilling fluid has several chemical components with different technological functions. The produced sand is extracted with oil, and contains significant quantity of oil.

As a result drilling muds and cuttings are laden with hundreds of very different hazardous constituents and compounds. They also contain many hazardous heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium, zinc, chromium, copper, iron and others). The produced sands also contain oil. Therefore, the indiscriminate discharges of these wastes into the environment pose serious ecological threats.

Other hazardous wastes arising from ancillary services include pigging and oil/tank sludges, septic tank sludge, clinical waste, smoke detectors, IT toners/cartridges, resins, used batteries, chemical residues and containers, oil residues, oily rags, paper and packaging.

Liquid Wastes
Produced waters, including injection water (used for maintaining pressure in the system), formation water, brine and other technological waters are usually polluted by oil, natural low-molecular weight hydrocarbons, inorganic salts, trace metals, suspensions and other technological chemicals. These waters have to be cleaned before they are discharged into the environment, as they contain hazardous substances.

Most produced waters are highly mineralized. It is usually higher than the seawater’s salinity. The mineralization of produced waters is caused by the presence of dissolved ions of sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride and sulphate. Also, produced waters usually have elevated levels of some heavy metals as well as dispersants, emulsion breakers and other chemicals.

Recent studies have also revealed that produced waters contain naturally occurring radioactive elements, which are leached from the reservoir by the formation waters and carried to the surface with produced waters, oil and gas. During offshore oil and gas activities, these radioactive elements (radionuclides) interact with dissolved sulphates in seawaters, precipitate and form a radioactive scale. Concern exists worldwide that this process can create centers of increased radioactive risk.

Other liquid wastes associated with construction, hydrostatic testing, commissioning, pigging, and maintenance of the pipeline system usually contain corrosion and scale inhibitors, biocides, oxygen scavengers and other agents. The cleaning and anticorrosion procedure, well repairing and well workover operations also produce dangerous chemicals. Deck drainage and sanitary wastes are also generated during exploration and production activities.

Nigeria has adequate legislations and regulations for managing the hazardous solid and liquid wastes arising from the oil and gas activity. Three regulatory bodies are also charged with the responsibilities of administering the law. They are Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), Federal Ministry of Environment (FMENV) (Formerly FEPA) and Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA).

However, the government enforcement powers are either at their lowest point or non-existent. The multinationals themselves cannot boast of waste management facilities and/or contractors with capability to manage these hazardous wastes. The lawless multinationals exploit the lax regulatory regime to illegally dump their oil & gas related wastes on land, inland water, neashore and offshore without any consideration for the grave consequences on the environment and public health.

For instance, the FMENV (formerly FEPA) requires a tracking programme for the hazardous wastes associated with the oil and gas activity, including clinical wastes. The tracking programme provides for tracking of the collection, transportation and treatment of the wastes from the generation to the disposal facility. Worryingly, the regulator is yet to establish a documented and verifiable tracking programme since the requirement came into force in 1991. The on-going indiscriminate dumping of hazardous wastes into the environment is a direct consequence of the failure of the tracking programme, which is meant to ensure transparency and good practice in waste management.

Gaseous Emissions
Atmospheric emissions take place at all stages of oil & gas industry’s activities. However, the continuous flaring (burning) to eliminate oil-associated gas, which is erroneously taken as a waste, is unacceptable world-wide.

In spite of the fact that some countries now have legislation prohibiting flaring of oil-associated gas, it remains one of the major sources of atmospheric emissions in the world. Nigeria is a major culprit in this regard. Apart from contributing significantly to global warming, this source of pollution also poses a serious threat to the water and onland ecosystems and to human health.

From the environmental health safety perspective, the most hazardous components are oxides of nitrogen (NOx), oxides of sulphur (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), particulates and the products of incomplete burning of hydrocarbons. Currently, Nigeria has more than 100 gas flaring sites in the Niger Delta area, some of which have been burning ceaselessly for almost 50 years.

James Argo, in his 2001 Report prepared for ‘Save Our Seas and Shores’ (SOSS), Canada, described flaring as a broad multi faceted disturbance of the system of human activities for as much as 30km from any flare. The report stated that when sea-water containing chloride is introduced into the flare containing organic matter, dioxins which have serious health effects are formed. Argo further stated that there are about 100-150 chemicals created in oil /gas flaring.

The 2001 Report titled ‘Unhealthy Effects of Upstream Oil and Gas Flaring’ described flaring among others, as follows: “A well operating flare is opp

osed to well – accepted principles of sustainable development. A poorly operating flare is a travesty against the entire biosphere within up to a 30km radius. It is axiomatic that where a flare is smoking no one should be downwind ……..”

According to Global Gas Flaring Reduction Initiative (GGFRI) 2002 Report by the World Bank, Nigeria flares 17.2 billion m3 of natural gas per year in the course of producing and processing oil in the Niger Delta. The economic and environmental ramifications of this high level of routine gas flaring are serious because the process is a significant waste of potential fuel which is simultaneously depositing pollutants on water, air and soil in the Niger Delta. It has been reported that the wasted resource through the flaring in Nigeria equals about 45 percent of the energy requirements of France, the world’s fourth largest economy.

The World Bank statistics show that Nigeria is responsible for about 10 percent of global emission. Nigeria gas flaring alone emits 35 million tons of CO2 and 12 million tons of CH4, which has a higher warming potential than CO2. Both CO2 and CH4 are greenhouse gases (GHGs) which cause global warming. The consequences of global warming include sea level rise and the attendant flooding in low lying coastal areas, desertification, adverse effects on ecosystems and human health.

Nigeria has continued to make legislations and policy pronouncements banning and/or discouraging flaring of oil associated gas since 1969, but the political will to actually curb gas flaring is lacking. This raises the issue of the dynamics of the influence of multinational corporations over natural resource exploitation in developing countries,. In this regard, Nigeria is not an exception.

In 1969, the Nigerian government enacted a legislation which made it a requirement for oil companies to set up facilities to use the associated gas within five years of commencement of oil production. The violation of this legislation necessitated the enactment of the Associated Gas Re-injection Act in 1979, which charged oil companies to re-inject associated gas and stop the unhealthy flaring within 5 years. The legislations were and still remain unenforced due to the obvious laxities in policy making and implementation in the energy sector in Nigeria.

In response to continuous gas flaring by the multi-nationals, the Nigerian government later resorted to relatively inadequate sanction in form of fines. The fine for gas flaring was fixed at N0.5 (U.S. 0.038 cent) for every 1000 ft3 of gas flared. It was later increased to N10 (U.S. 0.077 cent). This fine imposed on multinationals in Nigeria is a far cry from N1, 300 (U.S. 10 dollar) penalties required for the same quantity of gas flared in developed countries, which has discouraged the companies from flaring gas in such developed regions of the world. The continuous rampant gas flaring in Nigeria is attributed to the ridiculously low fine for gas flaring, which has made it cheaper to pay the penalty than build facility to collect and transport the gas for use as a fuel and for electricity generation.

Considering the great health and environmental implications, and global warming concern over gas flaring, the Nigerian government proposed the year 2003 for the terminal gas flares. The oil producing companies jointly attacked the policy as technically not feasible. Consequently, the 2003 dead line was extended to the year 2008. The year 2008 has been confirmed again by the government and oil multinationals as not feasible despite a subsisting Court Order obtained by some affected communities, directing the oil companies to put a stop to gas flaring by December 31, 2008.. This raises a fundamental question: Who manages oil resource exploitation in Nigeria, the government or multinational oil companies?

In realization of the effectiveness of economic instruments in enforcing elimination of gas flaring, a new fine of U.S. 3.50 dollars for every1000 ft3 of gas flared came into force in April 2008. The reduction of flared gas from 2 billion standard cubic feet (bscf) to 1.5 bscf per day as at December, 2008 may not be unconnected with the new fine. Oil companies are beginning to find it more economical to re-inject than flare the associated gas. It is hoped that continual upward reviews of the fine would force the multinationals to put an end to the
unacceptable gas flaring.

Written by
Tayo Akeem Yusuf
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