Visible from Space, Deadly on Earth: the Gas Flares of Nigeria

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Visible from Space, Deadly on Earth: the Gas Flares of Nigeria

Shell's activities in the West African country are under scrutiny

by
Daniel Howden in Yenagoa

A boy walks past the flame from gas flares near Port Harcourt in the Niger delta region of Nigeria. (Reuters)

There is an ominous new arrival in the tropical
forest outside Yenagoa in the southern Nigerian state of Bayelsa. It
travels on black metal stilts above the green canopy before sinking
into a concrete bunker where, when the bulldozers and cranes have
finished work, millions of cubic feet of natural gas will be pumped
before going up in smoke.

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 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 due 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 which 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 (bscf) per day, or 30 per cent of
total production. But a confidential report by international energy
consultants, seen by The Independent, puts the figure at 2.5 bscf, 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. "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."

Nigeria boasts some of the largest reserves of sweet and easily refined crude
oil anywhere on the planet. Despite the scale of its oil stocks, it has far
larger amounts of gas and is sometimes described as a gas province with some
oil attached. Historically, it was the high-value crude which drew companies
to the swampy Niger Delta in the 1950s when no one was interested in natural
gas. While other countries have since created markets and infrastructure to
utilise the gas, Nigeria has lagged behind, with successive governments
content to impose largely meaningless fines on an industry that provides 80
per cent of the nation's income and more than 90 per cent of its export
earnings.

Oil companies such as Shell, Exxon, Chevron and Agip argue that the absence of
a domestic market, the imposition of price controls and the high cost of
building infrastructure to capture and distribute natural gas have made it
economically unviable to end flaring. They complain that they are forced to
operate as minority partners in joint ventures with the NNPC, which
consistently fails to provide its share of investment. The Nigerian
government, which has a bill going through the Senate demanding an end to
gas flaring at all facilities by 31 December, has in turn blamed the oil
majors.

"You will never completely eliminate flaring," said Bent Svensson,
of the global gas flaring reduction unit at the World Bank. He said the best
that could be hoped for was the elimination of "continuous flaring"
- the most damaging way to dispose of associated gas. "That is at
least four years away and that assumes everything goes according to plan,
and there have been plans and deadlines before," he added.

Shell told The Independent it had spent $3bn since 2001 on a "flares-down"
investment programme and insisted that any new plants, including Opolo-Epie,
used flares only for safety reasons. However, the company made an identical
spending claim in a public report more than three years ago, suggesting it
has either spent nothing in the last three years or that it overstated the
level of that investment.

"The companies are not serious at all about ending flaring," said
Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian environmental activist who chairs Friends of the
Earth International. "They will never stop gas flaring until the oil
wells run dry."

WHAT IS GAS FLARING?

*Geology dictates that some of the richest deposits of oil sit together with
deposits of natural gas. Gas flaring is the practice of burning off that
natural gas when it is brought to the surface in places where there is no
infrastructure to make use of it. In the 1960s and 70s, "worthless"
gas was continuously flared at oil wells from Texas to Saudi Arabia. At its
peak, the practice pumped about 110 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide
to the atmosphere each year - about 0.5 per cent of the world's carbon
dioxide emissions.

Since then, the practice has been reduced, largely because companies have
realised the commercial potential of the gas. Pressure to reduce flaring
increased again when negative impacts of burning the gas became better
understood and efforts began to reduce the CO2 emissions driving climate
change. However, flaring is commonplace in Nigeria, where an estimated 40
per cent of gas produced is burned off - about 2.5 billion standard cubic
feet per day. Worldwide, the gas lost to flaring could meet one third of the
EU's natural gas needs each year.

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