Feature Article

 

In Oil-Rich Niger Delta, the Sun Never Sets

Smokestacks Still Shooting Out Gas Flares

EBOCHA, Nigeria -- Kingsley Okene is the chief here. But despite his authority, he says he has never managed to snuff the giant gas-fueled flames that have towered over his Niger Delta village for decades.

 

Neither has the government of Nigeria, though it has often vowed to do so.

 

The flames spout day and night from tall smokestacks, fired by the gas that is a byproduct of oil pumped here by the Italian company Agip. As many as 100 flares burn at petroleum companies' outposts across the oil-rich delta, belching harmful greenhouse gases and, human rights activists say, sickening residents.

 

Davison O. Amadi, resident of Ebocha, Rivers state 

The flames have become emblems of the inertia of the troubled region, where environmentalists, oil companies, politicians and militants argue about the wealth and wisdom of oil exploration. Some of the nation's poorest people, meanwhile, watch from the sidelines.

"The damage is done," said Okene, 69, sitting beneath an antelope-skin wall hanging in his modest home. "It's beyond my explanation."

But analysts say Nigeria may be embarking on its most serious effort to stop gas-flaring, which amounts to cash going up in smoke -- as much as $2.5 billion worth a year. The government, which missed its most recent "flare-out" deadline of Dec. 31, 2008, is working on a multibillion-dollar plan for three privately financed plants and pipelines to gather and process gas primarily for domestic power.

In a land of blackouts, generators and firewood, gas could "enable a potentially skyrocketing" economic growth rate, according to a 2004 World Bank report. Though there has been a slow reduction, Nigeria flared nearly eight times as much gas last year as it used for power -- more than any country except Russia, according to the World Bank.

It's a waste of energy that could be used for power generation," said Bent Svensson, head of the World Bank's Global Gas Flaring Reduction Initiative. "And it has environmental impact, both locally and globally, to global warming."

Gas is being flared while inhabitants rely on wood for fuel 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gas flares form the backdrop in everyday life in Ebocha. Residents talk of infections and acid rain due to the flames.

 

 

When Nigeria began tapping its oil 50 years ago, the norm was to burn gas, not harness it. Oil companies and the government, which owns a majority stake in oil ventures, never built the infrastructure to capture or transport it. Many oil-producing countries eventually phased out flaring. Nigeria, home to Africa's largest natural gas reserves, banned the practice in 1984 but has repeatedly extended deadlines -- even after a court ruled in 2005 that it violated Niger Delta residents' human rights.

Though a power crisis has created a market for natural gas, experts say, the government has failed to raise its share of funds to support projects, while militancy in the Niger Delta has made those endeavors risky. Occasional government threats to shut oil production came to naught because "that would just mean a reduction in revenue for themselves," said Thomas Pearmain, an Africa energy analyst for IHS Global Insight.

But now, in addition to the new infrastructure plans, proposed legislation would impose stiffer fines on gas-flaring companies. The government has also offered amnesty to delta rebels in a long-shot bid to end the insurgency. And the World Bank has pledged to guarantee the public electricity company's payments for gas supplied to the domestic power market, just in case it defaults on bills.

Few observers think gas-flaring will be sharply reduced anytime soon. But even critics say momentum is building.

"The people in Abuja actually understand now it's like burning money," said Chris Newsom, spokesman for the Stakeholder Democracy Network, a Niger Delta human rights organization that wants the government to quickly shut oil flow stations that flare the most gas.

Viewed from an airplane above the Niger Delta, the flares are shocking sights -- orange balls jutting from dense emerald forest. From the ground, residents say, they seem a bit like a never-setting sun.

"At night, you can see clearly without electricity," said Afam Nwachukwu, a former leader in Ebocha's youth association. "That does not make any sense."

Though there has never been a broad study about the environmental or health effects of gas-flaring in the delta, environmental groups have long said science shows the chemicals and particulate matter emitted by the flames contribute to respiratory ailments and acid rain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Residents of Ebocha, including Davison O. Amadi (shown in top photo), have been contending with such gas-fueled flares for years. Locals blame the flames for many health and other problems.

 

 

 

In Ebocha, the idea that gas-flaring is harmful is treated like a fact of life. Residents view it as the cause of many of their woes. Dirty rainwater stains white clothing, they said. Fish are scarce, skin infections are rife, and metal roofs rust within a year because of acid rain.

"Before the flare, we were enjoying coconut palm trees. We were enjoying kola nuts. As at now, all those things are gone," said Okene, a retired Agip chemist who said he recalled the day in 1970 when the Ebocha flames first rose up.

Sitting at a bar with a view of the raging flames, John Kelly Benson, 28, offered his bony arms as evidence of the harm. "Formerly," he said, "I'm fat."

He said he wanted the flares to die. His friend, Chili Ogele, nodded, but he added that he would like to get even closer to them, for one reason: He needed work.

"I'd really love to have a job in Agip," said Ogele, 28. "Because of this flare."

 

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 30, 2009

 

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