Bayelsa panel fingers IOCs, regulators in state’s oil pollution tragedy

Daniels Igoni examines the Bayelsa State’s Oil and Environmental Pollution Commission’s findings on the devastation caused by oil exploration in the state, the culprits and the way forward

Bayelsa State holds the enviable record of being the first state in Nigeria where crude oil was first struck in commercial quantities at the Shell’s Oloibiri oilfield in 1956. Soon after that year, oil wells were drilled by International Oil Companies in several communities in the Niger Delta for full-scale oil production activities.

Years later, the oil and gas sector became the mainstay of the Nigerian economy. At present, it accounts for over 85 per cent of the country’s export receipts.

However, for the past 60 years, the extractive activities of the IOCs, and lately indigenous oil companies, had led to environmental pollution and degradation, impacting vast wetlands and farmland, rivers, rivulets and ponds with devastating consequences.

As an oil-bearing state, Bayelsa had been in the news over oil and gas pollution incidents of minor and monumental proportions with the attendant destruction of livelihoods, ecosystem and health challenges to the people. Most of the time, however, it is believed that there is no adequate compensation for affected residents; neither does the necessary remediation of impacted sites receive adequate attention.

In its quest for environmental justice, the administration of former governor Seriake Dickson established the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Pollution Commission in March 2019 to investigate the impact of years of oil spillage and environmental pollution in the state.

After four years of work, the commission unveiled its final report at the House of Lords in London on May 16, 2023. The report titled, ‘An environmental genocide: Counting the human cost of oil in Bayelsa, Nigeria’, documented the over six decades of oil exploration and pollution in the state.

The commission was chaired by a former Anglican Archbishop of York and member of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, John Sentamu. Other members were a former President of Ghana, John Kufour; another member of the House of Lords, Valerie Amos; a professor of law at the University of Bradford, UK, Emeseh Engobo; and faculty member, Global Geography, Environmental and Urban Change at York University, Prof Anna Zalik.

Others were the Coordinator of Social Action International, Dr Isaac Osuoka; Emeritus Prof Michael Watts, University of California, Berkeley; Prof. Roland Hodler, University of St. Gallen; and the Director of Politics and Governance programme at Overseas Development Institute, UK, Dr Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou, who served as the secretary and chair of the commission’s expert working group, while the state’s former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Kemasuode Wodu, was the legal adviser.

The panel was expected to establish the facts, quantify the impact of the oil spill, determine responsibilities and where possible identify those responsible and make recommendations, including a suitable accountability framework.

The former governor had while inaugurating the commission in Yenagoa, said, “Oil and gas exploration and extraction has had an incalculable impact on the people and environment of Bayelsa State. It has threatened local livelihoods and economies, impeded agricultural development, fuelled health disorders and caused tensions in the social fabric of our communities.

“The people of Bayelsa State have paid too high a price for the growth of Nigeria’s oil sector without reaping any significant benefit.”

According to the 211-page report, the panel members visited several communities and interviewed over 500 people, noting that from Ayama-Ogbia (Agbara-Otuokpoti), to Koluama, Nembe, Aghoro in Ekeremor, Oporoma, Zarama and Okordia, among other communities, the lamentation was the same.

According to the report, apart from oil spill, other sources of environmental pollution in the state were effluent waste disposal in the Brass Canal, dumping of drilling mud, artisanal refining and gas flaring. It noted that the state experienced a spill every 12 hours for 14 years.

The report said, “Bayelsa recorded 25 per cent of all oil spill in Nigeria between 2006 and 2020; 3,508 oil spill out of 13,251 oil spill; 234 oil spill in Bayelsa per year with most in Southern Ijaw, Yenagoa and Nembe Local Government Areas; 109,940 barrels of oil spilled in Bayelsa and 88 per cent from five IOCs’.

It blamed the problem on a failed regulatory regime by the government, noting that environmental standards were not ensured and that relevant agencies were burdened by overlapping roles.

The panel also indicted the oil firms over “failure of strategy, prevention, response and remediation of oil spill incidents in their areas of operations”.

In particular, the report pointed out that the defunct Department of Petroleum Resources, now called Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission, and the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency of the Federal Government lacked powers to discipline oil companies after finding them culpable.

The report further noted that gas flaring in Nigeria was among top 10 globally, adding that no country flares as much gas as a percentage of its total gas as Nigeria. It noted further that three Local Government Areas accessed by water were the most affected by gas flaring. The LGAs were Nembe, Ekeremor and Southern Ijaw, all of which have a high number of flow stations and oil operations.

The panel observed that fines imposed by the Federal Government on the oil companies had been grossly insufficient to deter bad environmental practices.

“In 2018, the Federal Government increased the penalty for gas flaring from N10 per 1,000 standard cubic feet (scf) to $2 per 1,000 scf of gas flared. Furthermore, various legislative measures to curb gas flaring in Nigeria have been in place since 1969. Currently, companies producing more than 10,000 barrels per day pay a fine of $2 per 1,000 scf of gas flared, while those producing less than 10, 000bpd pay $0.5 per 1,000 scf of gas fared,” the report stated.

The report indicated that several health studies have documented the connection between gas flaring and a range of chronic diseases including bronchial, rheumatic and eye conditions alongside hypertension. It stated further that constant inhalation of sulphur dioxide causes nose and throat irritation and shortness of breath, adding that prolonged exposure to flared gas has been associated with cancer and neurological, reproductive and developmental effects.

The report added, “The flares harm and disperse local wildlife and are associated with numerous ecological problems. In Ogboinbiri, Tebidaba, Southern Ijaw, Agip operates 24-hour gas flaring cycles. In Nembe Creek I, II and III, Oporoma and Gbarain, the SPDC continually flare gas. The Gbarain-Ubie gas processing plant (belonging to the SPDC) is a major concern.”

The panel also expressed concern that there were too many regulatory agencies in the oil and gas sector but no action was taken to safeguard the environment and communities.

It therefore recommended a comprehensive clean-up of Bayelsa with a recovery plan to deal with health challenges arising from pollution. It also stressed the need for health screening of chronic and acute conditions and facilitation of urgent access to safe water and food supplies.

It called for the establishment of a recovery agency for the state, a new compensation scheme for the affected people, fundamental reform of the regulatory agencies, introduction of a new legal framework and new dispute resolution procedures, and enhanced role for the state.

The panel further recommended deeper scrutiny of the IOCs, overhaul of their approach to community engagement to ensure transparency, accountability and community input, and the establishment of a legally-binding and decommissioning regime.

It further said, “This Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission report is a life saver. It calls for action and will be a catalyst for Bayelsa. An enduring post-oil future will leave the people better and not in eternal regrets.

“The injustice must be attended to for justice to prevail. The people deserve to live in wealth. The wickedness to the people must stop to give room for a new lease of life. The oil companies need to clean up the mess as recommended by the report.

“The commission recommends concerted international action to generate and invest at least $12bn over the course of 12 years to repair, remediate and restore the environmental and public health damage caused by oil and gas, and lay a foundation for a transition towards renewable energy and opportunities for alternative livelihood in a new Bayelsa.”

A member of the commission, Amos, described the pollution by oil multinationals as scandalous and shameful, noting that oil multinationals had yet to take responsibility. She also called on the international community to take action against polluters of the environment and save the state from “an environmental genocide.”

She said, “The research and the evidence contained in the report tell the stories that are so important. The community impact of the pollution comes through so clearly and it is devastating.

“This has been on for so long. It is an absolute scandal and we should all be ashamed that we have got to this point. Those responsible, including our international oil companies, should be ashamed of the roles they have played in their refusal to take responsibility.

Nwajiaku-Dahou stressed that the report was the product of four years of work put in by researchers, scientists and professionals in various fields.

She added, “This helped us to bring to light what the commission describes as environment genocide that plagues Bayelsa today. The commission’s findings shine light on the pollution catastrophe engulfing the state and its underlying causes. Chief among them are the systemic failings of international oil companies with the complicity of Nigeria’s political class and a dysfunctional Nigerian regulatory state.

“The report sets out a proposal to end decades-long cycles of contamination and neglect by the oil and gas industry.”

Governor Douye Diri, who received the report from Sentamu, applauded the panel members and his predecessor for the initiative, pledging that his administration would act decisively and speedily on the recommendations and seek partners to ensure that the report was implemented.

Dickson also said part of the motivation was to have a basis to hold accountable the oil multinationals operating in the state and the region.

The Ibenanaowei of Ekpetiama Kingdom, Bubaraye Dakolo, at whose backyard the SPDC Gbarain-Ubie gas gathering plant is sited, lamented that his people were suffering hardship caused by environmental pollution.

Dakolo, the current chairman of the state council of traditional rulers, said, “Let the world hear this. The Gbarain people are suffering. Our leaders are not doing anything, we are suffering. So, we are begging those in authority, we are dying here.”

A former commissioner for information and orientation in the state, Daniel Iworiso-Markson, said the presentation of the final report to the international community was important since the alleged culprits of ‘environmental genocide’ also have their international headquarters abroad.

While calling on the administration of President Bola Tinubu to prioritise the scourge of oil pollution, Iworiso-Markson stated further, “It (the report) must not be swept under the carpet. We have suffered too much from the effects of oil exploration activities. The constant flooding we experience can also be attributed to it. So, we must get the IOCs to carry out remediation.”

Meanwhile, some of the oil majors operating oilfields in Bayelsa State faulted the findings of the panel and questioned its credibility and “institutional character”, insisting that they were excluded from the process.

The management of Nigerian Agip Oil Company, in a statement by its parent company, Eni, dismissed the allegations of being culpable in oil pollution around its assets and facilities in the state.

It stated, “We do not attribute any value to a report for which we have not been consulted, and made by a commission that, despite its name, does not have any institutional character.

“In Nigeria, over the last 10 years, almost all the hydrocarbon spills are due to so-called “third-party interference”, which specifically means oil theft, to feed illegal refineries as well as illegal exports and sabotage.

“The company undertakes to remedy in all cases, both when spills are both operational and due to theft or sabotage. The trend of spills in the region decreased over the last few years, also thanks to the important interventions carried out by Eni to guarantee the asset integrity, among other things.”

The oil giant said about 97 per cent of associated gas produced by NAOC was processed either as liquefied natural gas or used to feed local power plants. “Okpai produced approximately 2,000 GWh of electricity in 2022,” it added.

It said further, “Eni conducts its activities according to the sector’s international environmental best practices without any distinction on a country basis. There is nothing further from our corporate culture than allegations of environmental racism.”

Also reacting to the alleged complicity in the oil pollution in the state, the SPDC argued that it operates in an environmentally sustainable manner.

SPDC’s Media Relations Manager, Mrs Bola Essien-Nelson, attributed many of the pollution incidents within its operations to vandalism and oil theft.

She stated, “SPDC operates to the same technical standards as other Shell companies globally. Illegal actions by third parties cause the vast majority of oil spills in the Niger Delta, such as crude oil theft and sabotage.

“However, regardless of the cause, the joint venture responds quickly to clean up when a spill originates from its facilities. Our teams continue to collaborate with the Nigerian government and other stakeholders with the aim of eradicating crude theft from our facilities.

“We try to stop criminal actions happening in the first place, putting steel cages around some well heads and using helicopters to monitor for attacks on pipelines. Shell companies in Nigeria also bring jobs, support local supply chains and invest in the education and healthcare people rely on, as well as providing billions of dollars in income to the Nigerian government.”

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen in the months ahead what practical steps the state government would take to implement the recommendations of the panel to achieve environmental justice for the people, their communities and the state.

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