With shifting deadlines to the end of gas flaring in oil exploration, many communities in the Niger Delta continue to suffer untold hardship from the deadly flames. Seun Akioye, who crisscrossed oil flare sites in the region, reports on the plight of oil-bearing communities.
Niger Salvation looked at the rolled cannabis held in his left hand and sighed. In the last 10 minutes he had been pulling absent mindedly at it and as it began to burn towards the tip of his fingers, he took a long and final drawl, turning his face to a side as he performed this arduous task. The resulting smoke from this action escaped through his nose in thick, black column sending a nauseating odour into the atmosphere.
“They are trying to rope us with gas pipes,” he said in-between the smoke using his right hand to draw an invincible circle around himself. “If they (Agip) pass the gas through this community and I am here smoking, you know what may happen. I am not comfortable with the idea of running gas pipes from here to Tumoh; let them run it somewhere else because we exist here. Do they want to burn us alive?” he asked, looking around his colleagues for a possible answer.
Three other youths who had accompanied Salvation to the site of the new gas pipe been operated by Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC) in Ogboinbiri community, Southern Ijaw Local Government of Bayelsa state nodded their heads several times in agreement.
Ogboinbiri, a sleepy community of about 20,000 inhabitants is rich, at least in mineral resources. In 1980, the NAOC discovered profitable oil wells underneath the rural community and began oil exploration activities. By 1991, it has built its first flow station sending into the international market 60,000 barrels of crude oil and 30,000 cubic meters of gas every day.
The oil company had enjoyed a relatively peaceful atmosphere in Ogboinbiri to conduct its profitable business against the background of the restiveness in the Niger Delta region. In 2013, the company began to build a gas gathering mega station with an additional tank farm installation and a field logistics base. The contract was given to Daewoo Engineering and Construction Company –which has extensive contracts building gas plants in the Niger Delta- and hundreds of youths were employed, mostly from outside Ogboinbiri.
Today, there are 13 functional and two non-functional oil well heads in the community with a massive flow station built across the creek from the community. The oil company and its contractors were making money while the host community continues to wallow in poverty.
The flare and the community
About 20 boats rocked gently to the light waves on the Apoi creek in Amasoma bay. The afternoon sun shone brightly on the brown waters of the creek while in a corner about five children engaged in what looked like dangerous dives in the water.
Passengers filled the boats, all destined for one or the other of several riverine communities along Apoi creek. Ogboinbiri is not accessible by land; one would have to travel for an approximate one hour, twenty minutes in a small motorised boat fitted with 200horse power engine along the treacherous labyrinth of Apoi creek.
At the end of the journey is Ogboinbiri community sitting about 100 feet above the creek, hiding itself using the natural defenses of the creek. About ten steps ascended to the community from the river. At a glance, a large sign announced there are genuine engine parts for sale while another belonging to the Deeper Life Bible Church invited all visitors to a special church service.
The town itself is a mixture of ancient and modern architecture existing side by side. Three pavements-serving as roads-ran from one end of the village to the other. The houses were built in a straight line so that each house faced the pavement. Apart from residential buildings, most of the buildings have been turned into business premises. One could argue that there are more shops selling goods than houses for people to live.
At the southern end of the town is a large playing field belonging to Apoi Clan Primary School. Every evening, aspiring international football stars divide the field into sections and played football. At about 6: pm, Okorodo Doytimieriye began to prepare for sale large quantities of what is known locally as water snail. With the assistance of her children, she boiled them and removed the soft meat inside the shells. “This is the most popular business in Ogboinbiri; we harvest the water snail and prepare them in various varieties like roasted and boiled. From February to September, we make a lot of money because this is the meat we eat,” she said.
Doytimieriye said when she invested N3, 000 in the business she can makeN6, 000 doubling her initial capital. But not everybody is lucky like Doytimieriye, others especially older women engaged in farming on land across the creek planting cassava, plantain and yam. Early in the morning, dressed in rags, they cut a pathetic figure in their dug-out canoe, paddling painfully across the creek. In the evening, they returned in their canoe; some with a bunch of plantain and others with nothing.
But there is one universal advantage in Ogboinbiri unlike other oil-bearing communities, which is the uninterrupted power supply supplied by the oil company. “The only thing we have in this village is the light and the three pavement roads made by the oil company for the community,” one of the residents said.
At night, the community becomes a carnival. Everywhere is lit up and almost every other house has a bar with loud music blaring from giant speakers placed at the entrance of the house. Revelers filled the pavement and women fried fish and plantain till midnight.
“This is how we live our lives, we thank God for little mercies,” one of the revelers on road two said.
But underneath the rusty roofs and impoverished streets lay untold wealth in large deposits of natural oil and gas. Ogboinbiri community has existed at least since 1914 when the primary school was established long before oil was discovered. With oil came the associated gas flaring and its consequences.
Across the creek facing the community lies the fortress that housed the oil company’s facilities and personnel, it is a magnificent edifice manned by several soldiers armed with Ak47 rifles and mean looks. At the approach of a boat, soldiers hiding in the towers pointed their guns at the approaching visitors who were mandated to lift up their hands in the boat before they can be allowed to berth. The villagers looked on in amazement at the display of power and opulence.
At night when the oil flow station is lit, it took on a more majesty appearance in sharp contrast to the squalor which defines the Ogboinbiri community. About 1,000 meters from the flow station, closer to the community is a massive rig used by the oil company to flare its unwanted gas.
The flared gas emitted in form of a huge fire burning endlessly into Ogboinbiri atmosphere. During the day the huge flare is almost undistinguishable as it pours its fiery flames into the blue skies but at night, the sky directly under it became red and one could smell the obnoxious gases being emitted several meters away. The flare blazed with fury and in the early evening, children oblivious of the deadly fire, played away under the rising moon.
Nigeria’s burning atmosphere
Since the insurgency in the Niger Delta began, it has been over demands for increased revenue from the regions’ natural resources and the devastating conditions created by oil spill in the region. Little was known about gas flaring, an associated effect of oil exploration. However, gas flaring which occurs in every oil bearing community is responsible for severe environmental, health, agriculture and economic loss usually to the host communities.
According to the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), Nigeria has a gas reserve estimate of about 600 Trillion Cubic Feet, which far outstrips the oil reserves. The country also losses $4.9 million (over N735 million) daily to gas flaring.
Nigeria flares 17.2 billion m3 of gas every year according to the World Bank. This is estimate to be about 25 percent of the energy needs of Africa. According to the World Bank, Nigeria ranks second in global gas flaring index with 11 percent of world gas flares next to Russia adjudged as the biggest polluter in the world.
The first attempt to curb gas flaring was in 1969 with a proclamation by Head of State Gen. Yakubu Gowon that oil companies must achieve zero flare index within five years of operation. Also through the Associated Gas Re-Injection Act Number 99 of 1979, the Nigerian government required oil corporations operating in Nigeria to guarantee zero flares by January 1, 1984. There have been several deadlines by the government to end gas flaring but operators continue to operate with impunity.
Operators prefer to pay the stipulated fines instead. In the Gas Re-injection Act of 1979, for instance, there is a penalty fee of N0.05 for every million cubic feet (MCF) of gas flared. In 1998, it was reviewed to N10 for every million cubic feet (MCF) and was again upgraded to US $ 3.5 for every 1,000 cubic feet of gas flared. The House of Representatives also amended the Gas Re-Injection Act and stipulated a penalty of $500, 000 for defaulters.