Investigation… GAS FLARING: A story of wasted wealth and how a N/Delta community grapples with infertility
By Sunday Orji…
“…Before the end of the third day, all the animals that took the water died“.
The flares at Obrikom in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government Area of RIvers State, never die. Fumes from high vertical flare stack stay steadfast in the air; darkening the day and brightening the twilight. The plants and shrubs and weeds are lean and stale and drained. The soil is thick and stony. The surface of the muggy rivers wear a veil of dark slowly floating black powders like a boundless sheet of dark cloud. The bunch of fire from the flares wag off vivid dark smokes into the sky.
Over the years, with gas flaring in full effect, only few plants and palm trees have survived the scourge coming from the heat and noise. And except for their green stained leaves, every vestige of the fertility in Obrikom and neighbouring Okwuzi –communities once great for its robust farm yields and rich waters – is fading off. The rain now comes late and acidic. And the farm yield is scare and poor. Obrikom is as hot as the edge of hell and the people wear sweat all day.
Thirty nine years after first outlawing gas flaring (since 1979) – the burning of natural gas during petroleum crude oil extraction – in Nigeria has continued. Defiance against environmental regulations and advocacy in addressing gas flaring has been high as communities within the Niger Delta region including Obrikom continue to face severe health out-turn. The multi-national oil companies – Total Nigeria Plc, Texaco, Shell Petroleum Development Company, Oando Group, NAOC, etc. – burn off gases, with the perils settling on host communities.
“From your first day on earth, you begin to inhale poisoned air until you are thirty, forty or fifty. Air is the source of life and if the air you take is poisoned, how would you live? Death is very rampant in the Niger delta. Mysterious sicknesses. A whole lot of miscarriages occur here. Our pregnant women are not in good health. The foetus in the womb is already endangered” Moses Ijemene (not real name), an engineer with Nigerian Agip Oil Company [NAOC], says.
Ijemene was born in the Niger Delta some forty years ago. He was among the last generation that saw the green fields of the Niger Delta and the fruitful clean ponds and rivers. He grew up eating everything fresh and healthy from the farms and waters. His father was a great fisherman. As the years rolled by, Moses watched the fading way of the past. But only one aspect of the disappearing vestige struck him.
“While growing up in the Niger Delta” he says, “I saw great fishes and aged men. The oldest men in our community were 140, 130, and 120. We lived long and healthy because we eat only natural foods, fishes and vegetables. There was barely a need for hospitals because we enjoyed fine health. As the years rolled by, death became rampant, and young men and children started dying. The oldest man in my clan today is just about 70 or thereabout. That was when I knew that my people were in trouble.”
River Orash, the biggest but poisoned source of livelihood for the people of Obrikom and other neighbouring communities
Today, Ijemene lives away from the community. He found another home in the city of Port Harcourt so that his family and children would be safe from the threats of the toxics from flares. Yet, George Bennet, another engineer with Nigerian Agip Oil Company, NAOC, has lived almost his entire life in the rural community.
He has watched for the past three decades the unblinking flaming of gas stack, he has watched the rising of dark fumes from the tongues of the flare fire, he has watched the blanketing of his community with dark smokes and now he lives with great fear for his people’s health at Obrikom.
“In the communities around here where gas flaring is taking place, you find a lot of persons that are disfigured but in Obrikom our eyes are almost going blind. A lot of little children need glasses to read from tender age. Those who are most affected by threat of blindness are workers or retirees in the gas plants. Anybody that works in the gas plant for a long time, the person must surely use glasses before he can read” George said.
The gas flaring experience for the residents of Obrikom has been a story of memories and nostalgia. Sadly, the memories are not positive memories. They are negative memories. George, like every other adult shakes his head to throw off tears when he talks about a past buried in sorrow and regret. Obrikom and neigbouring Ebocha, Okwuzi, Mgbede, and Egbema are host to two giant multinational oil companies – Total Nigeria Plc and Nigerian Agip Oil Company, NAOC – with about eight gas flaring stack around them.
Night-time flares by the oil companies in Obrikom
“There was a time the community complained to Agip that the sicknesses amongst our people was too much”, he states. “They brought white doctors to confirm if indeed the community was facing severe health challenges from the flares. The white doctors came with different species of animals and birds and fishes to run an experiment on the health situation in the communities. They fed the animals with the rain water that some of us in the Niger Delta drink. Before the end of the third day, all the animals that took the water died.
“The company, that year, offered free medical services to the community. After that year, it never happened again till today and its way over 10 years”.
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) said the total volume of gases flared by oil and gas companies rose by 17.46 percent in the past year. The report by the country’s apex state oil corporation claims that flared gases rose from 244.84 billion standard cubic feet in 2016 to 287.59 billion standard cubic feet, SCF, in 2017.
In Nigeria, the penalty for gas flaring, according to Nigeria National Gas Policy 2017, is quite soft and the Federal government plans to “increase gas flaring penalty.” The document establishing the policy says that “the current gas flare penalty of N 10/Mscf (equivalent to $0.03) of associated gas flared is too low, haven been eroded in value over time….Consequently, the low penalty has made gas flaring a much cheaper option for operators compared to the alternatives of marketing or re-injection.”
Away from the penalty being too small to deter the oil companies, George says, the oil companies have not been showing any concern to the health of the communities.
“If you are sick, you go for your own personal treatment. And there are a lot of persons in this community who are poor and can’t foot their own health care bill” he retorts.
“Nobody in the oil producing communities is excluded from the hazards but what can the people do? The communities sometimes try fighting for it but those at the top would close it. People are suffering and no one compensates these communities for endangering their lives. But if I write about the rot in the land with my pen, where will it go? There is nothing the communities can do” says Eze Okaru, the paramount ruler of Okoronkwo village in Okwuzi, River state, Nigeria.
The tragic twist is that the people have been silent and terrified. The terror of volatile response from the oil companies or elements within the communities that benefit from their activities is fierce says Moses. A word for their fate is costly and only a few have the courage to unveil the secrecy. Getting interviews is difficult. Sources chew their words and pick carefully their phrases. To their heart, every pain and agitation is buried and silence is a common response.
In the next 15 years husbands may not be able to impregnate their wives
Obirikom is a two hour drive from the city centre of Port Harcourt. Disappearing farm lands mingle with cluster of palm trees; presenting a crossroad between fertility and impotence. The zincs are routinely dark-grey. The old are frail with a touch of white kink hair and stripes of folding skins that leave strands of many years of exposure to the affliction of flares and the infirmities of poverty.
White vehicle packed at Okwuzi few months back painted black by soot
For the past three years, Patience – a community health worker at Obrikom – has watched the drastic drop in the number of new born infants and pregnant mothers in some of these communities starting from Obrikom to Okwuzi, Ebocha, Mgbede – all in Ogba – Egbema – Ndoni local government area m of the state.
Cases of young ladies missing their menstruation is high and yet the pregnancy level is dropping. She says the experience is terrible but she doesn’t know how to explain the root of the problem to the locals.
“In the last three years if you come to the health center on Thursdays – usually the anti-natal days or Tuesdays –usually the post natal days – you find a huge number of women, say around 60-80. But now, you find just a few women who still come with a whole lot of health complains. Every now and then, someone is complaining of missing her menstruation” she said.
She says that in the future, say ten to 15 years from now, most male in this region would be suffering from infertility and prostate cancer. And they would be unable to impregnate their wives. The population of these communities would diminish and the male would suffer most.
Dr. Leelee Zitte, an environmentalist and neuron-physiologist at the Department of Animal and Environmental Biology, University of Port Harcourt reveals that the radiation and chemicals inhaled during long exposure to gas flaring can result in defect in the sperm cell. He states that this problem can affect the mobility of sperm cell such that a man may really find it difficult producing children.
“Something you wear has been polluted. Something you breathe has been polluted. Something you drink has been polluted. Something you eat has been polluted. Gases come from the numerous flare stacks around us and there is no free zone,” says Eze Okaru, who adds that it would be an extreme miracle to find a resident of any of these gas flaring communities that’s not facing one form of health problem or another.
A study by Professor Georgewill of the department of Pharmacology, University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital demonstrated that infertility can be triggered by hydrocarbon poisoning – a common byproduct of gas flaring. While specialist consultant surgeon, Dr. Furo Green claims that lung cancer associated with gas flaring-driven air pollution could affect over six million persons in the city of Port Harcourt, one of the core oil producing states of the Niger Delta.
My Child moves in the Womb
Its twilight on Tuesday in Obrikom. Glowing bulbs rise from every door post one at a time until the darkness in the community fizzles out. The flare – which is the king of all lights – sparkles from a distance above. It’s an amazing sight for aliens and awful time for indigenes and residents especially nursing mothers and pregnant women.
Pregnant mothers like Uchechi Micheal have several complains about the flare. She says that it’s usually very difficult to sleep at night because of how heated and noisy the environment turns every evening. This situation overtime creeps into systematic insomnia. Insomnia – medical studies have shown – leads to mood swings, irritability and higher risk of developing chronic diseases and general decline in both mental and physical health.
When the people protest, soldiers are sent after them
“My fear is that once the flare is heated, the heat in the community increases and the child in my womb begins to move about. This happens almost every night” she said.
Other pregnant mothers around surrounding communities confirm Uchechi’s experiences; aligning with her confession on sleeplessness and the movement of their babies at night and constant illness.
George Bennet, a father of two, says that children in the community are sick freak. George who is also resident in Obrikom says that the only way to keep the younger ones safe is by placing them on drugs once they are 4-6 months. The children here are often down with illness especially cough and malaria and fever, he complains.
Three years ago, Patience was transferred to Obrikom to work as a doctor in the community health center. She was born here some forty years back but she never lasted in the place as a child. She had gone off to the city to study. In between those years, she only breezed in and dashed off again. Her employment was a homecoming of a sort and optimism was huge.
She had returned with her five children. They arrived healthy and happy. After the first day at Obrikom, one of the kids was down with illness. Within the next one week, the other four kids came down with cough, malaria and fever. She had known from her studies that gas flares were terrible, but she had no idea it was this dreadful.
“My son who is less than two years has always been falling sick. Sometimes it’s cough. Other times its fever, and malaria. These ailments are always around the children here. The lungs of the little children are also seriously affected in a bad way”, says Patience.
The pollution in the Niger Delta has been linked to high infant mortality in the region. In the Nigerian context, researchers suggest that gas flaring can result in deformities in children.
Dr. Zitte, reveals that long term exposure to gas flaring results in damages to the brain cells and the central nervous system. He reveals that gas flaring effect is, however, more pronounced in infants and the unborn children in the region.
“Children developing in the womb under this flares are likely to have malformation and deformities”
Technically, gas flaring is illegal in Nigeria. The Articles (20) of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended provides that ‘the state shall protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air and land, forest and wildlife of Nigeria.’ Nigeria is signatory to the Africa Charter and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – both containing provisions that outlaws the violation of the safety of the environment.
Yet, government early this year revealed that there are 178 gas flare sites in the country.
Gas flaring reduction chart by NOAA/GGFR
Only few local researches have been directed at revealing the cause-effect studies on gas flaring and child health but strong speculations – drawn from general medical researches – prove that the effect do not just exist but they are dire.
Relatedly, the study by Professor Roland Hodler and his colleagues primarily provides a direct connection between pollution and child health in Niger Delta. Using spatial data from the Nigerian Oil Spill Monitor and the Demographic and Health Surveys, and relying on the comparison of siblings conceived before and after nearby oil spills, the researchers discovered that nearby oil spills doubled the neonatal mortality rate.
Its findings reveal that of the 16,000 infants killed within the first month of their life in 2012, 70 per cent – that is around 11,000 infants – would have survived their first year in the absence of oil spills.
Generally speaking, life expectancy in Nigeria is 53-55 years but in the Niger delta, life expectancy averages around 40 years; almost 15 years less. This is due to lifetime exposure to contaminated air, water sources, soil and sediment resulting from oil spill and gas flaring amongst other pollutants, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) after carrying out a two-year study in the Niger Delta region.
The black powder that kills
Its 9a.m in Nigeria’s oil rich city of Port Harcourt. Moses, an engineer at Agip, was driving down the route to the University of Port Harcourt. The distance ahead of him is buried in black tiny moving powdery substances called soot. The entire city wore a dark air and everything was touched. The soot made waves in the media few months back and passed away and things remained the same.
“It has been around for the past two years and we never can tell where this substance would place the future of children and the unborn”, Professor Gobo of the department of Meteorology and Environmental Management, Rivers state university, Port Harcourt Nigeria said.
Gobo says the scale of the problem that the soot is placing on the entire Niger Delta may not be clear until scholars channel their studies to that field. “We may not see the entire consequences of the soot today though we are sure the effect is dangerous”, he told Ripples Nigeria. “In the future there may be more illnesses especially with our lungs. The little children would suffer most but everyone who takes in the poisoned air of the region is under health risk”
He adds however, that the government and the oil companies don’t want to encourage research into this area because it would expose the scale of the inhumanity done to the peoples’ health already.
The effect of gas flaring has been brutal
When the powder of the soot started dropping on Port Harcourt few months back every roof was touched and the windows and doors pierced. The airy cloud of dark pigment enmeshed the bare floors and settled on kitchens and pots and plates. When the soot, dark as the devil, settles on white clothes, it becomes bleached and its whiteness gives way for blackness.
“Some days, you wake up and discover that some part of your house is dark and if you walk through the tiles, you would discover that your footprint would be carved on the floor because of the dark droppings in the room. Beyond the increased heat in the city, you equally notice that a lot of persons are going down with throat cough” says Chioma Eze, a resident of Port Harcourt.
Soot are tiny black particles that can travel very far in the air and is chiefly composed of hydrocarbons produced as a result of incomplete combustion of largely oil and other forms of fuels. Health researchers explain that soot can consist of acids, chemicals, soils and dust. Soot results from the burning of fossil fuels, coal, manufacturing.
Gobo says that the blanketing of the Niger Delta by soot is traceable to gas flaring and the setting ablaze of illegal refineries by the military operations against bunkering in the creeks. These two, he says, ruins the air quality standard.
“Breathing in this tiny particles can cause coronary heart disease, asthma, bronchitis, and many other respiratory illnesses” wrote Zachary Keefe, a Senior Indoor Air Quality Consultant at US-based Cashins & Associates.
Researches in the United States of American reveal that exposure to the particles of soot-related air pollution results in around 20,000 premature deaths yearly. Relatedly, a study by Donald McCubbins shows that, in the United States, 1.4 million cases of aggravated asthma, 35,700 premature deaths, 2,350 heart attacks, 29,800 cases of acute bronchitis were avoided annually by implementing the soot pollution reduction.
There might be a more terrible situation in the Niger Delta but there are no studies to reveal this, Gobo believes.
Particles from soot – studies have shown – like the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides mingle with moistures in the clouds to form acid rain which undermine the water quality resulting in damages to the soil and crops, and poisons food and waters. The tiny particles of soot can penetrate the lungs and the cardiovascular system posing huge health threats, the World Health Organisation reveals.
Some die in less than one minute.
For nearly three decades, Okoro Isaac, worked in the gas plants with one of Nigeria’s multinational oil companies, Nigerian Agip Oil Company [NAOC]. Being a griot, he talked about the days in the oil companies and in those stories, death, and crumbling health were common characters. While Okoro talked, cycle of coughs snatched short phrases from his lips. His breath was lousy and deep. And when the cough sounds are made, it seemed as though he would vomit his heart.
Yet he refused to talk about his health, insisting that it was personal and that his healing was spiritual. Anyways, a community health worker in Obrikom says that such signs of failing health was common amongst retirees of the oil companies and residents who have been around long enough.
“They don’t usually last after retirement. They are often moving from one clinic to the other because their entire immune system has been destroyed over the years. The oil companies give them huge salaries because they know they won’t be alive to enjoy the wealth. The road network in this community is superb, the electricity is constant but what about the health of the people?” she retorted.
Over the years, discussions on gas flaring and the associated health dangers have been restricted to the communities, but reliable sources from the oil companies told Ripples Nigeria, that primary staff face more dangers than is known. The sensitive nature of the gas plants and petroleum exploration require that companies keep certain safety standard in order to protect the health of the oil workers who are directly exposed to all sorts of dangerous gases.
Engineer Moses argues that every discussion on the dangers of gas flaring should start from the health of the workers. He says that the personal protective equipment required for safety are grossly inefficient and many workers die in silence. He adds that the companies threaten those who fail to comply with sack.
“The white man would tell you that you would not find any job elsewhere if you are sacked from this job. Honestly, the fear of losing your job forces many of us to continue this work.”
In 2014, Moses recalls, he lost his closest colleague in the company to brain tumor and he has seen more workers suffering instant or delayed deaths. As he talked, his fingers wagged in the air, his voice was slowing and deepening and tears formed around the red clouds over his eyeball.
“For years my friend suffered from failing health. He won’t be able to say he is weak because the management would sack and replace him. He continued visiting those sensitive places unprotected. Upon his death in 2014, the result of the autopsy showed he died of brain tumor but the company concealed it.”
He lamented, that “Dying here is gradual but steady, as men take in these gases every day. Little by little we die off as one inhales the poisoned air for twenty, thirty or forty years. Our lives drop every second. As we inhale this acid into hearts, and livers and lungs, my people rot on the inside” Isaac bewailed.
Isaac and Moses who have a combined 34 years’ experience in the gas industry claim that most of these occupational hazards would have been avoided if the companies made adequate provisions. They, however, agree that the handful of accidents and impairing health can be traced to the carelessness of the oil worker.
“While the oil companies have their standard for protecting the health of workers, the field managers may not have the full equipment to follow this standard especially during emergency. The instruction may tell you not to enter a particularly place without wearing a nose mask but the worker may not have it and in certain conditions, a worker is forced to go in and work unprotected irrespective of health risks” Isaac said.
But there is an exception. That exception is not positive. The top managers who manage operations rarely face these problems. So the primary workers are most endangered and those who flaunt compliance lose their job irrespective of the health hazards.These primary workers are largely Nigerians.
Sadly, Isaac said that in the course of operation some workers go down for it. He recalls the death of a young oil worker – few months back – from his community who was exposed to an extremely concentrated gas that takes a person’s life in less than one minute.
Ordinarily, the oil companies make medical provisions available for health checks which in some cases takes place once a year for active workers. There is also a free medical clinic services for retired oil workers. But the complex health situations that oil workers develop, Moses claims, far exceeds what this routine checks and clinic can handle.
Wasting wealth, harming health
The NNPC disclosed that oil and gas firms operating in the country are currently flaring 700 million standard cubic feet (SCF) of gas per day, resulting in loss of N868 million daily.
According to NNPC Group Managing Director, Mr. Maikanti Baru, this 700 million SCF per day of gas flared daily, is capable of generating an equivalent of 5,000 megawatts of electricity per day.
The tragic twist is that 75 percent of Nigerians lack electricity. According to the Nigerian Association of Energy Economists, NAEE, despite statistics indicating that 45 percent of the country’s population is currently connected to the national grid, regular supply is still restricted to just about 25 percent of the population.
Nigeria’s power problem has lingered for years, forcing the government to privatize the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) in hopes of achieving at least a moderate supply of electricity.
Though Crude oil accounts for more than 80 percent of Nigeria’s foreign earning, internal utilization of the many potentials of the sector have been undermined by wastefulness and shortsightedness, and the continued waste of the country’s wealth in gas flaring is sadly, a strong pointer to this scenario.
For instance, the energy problem in Nigeria can be addressed almost at no cost by resorting to gas generated energy, as the country has over 187 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of proven gas reserve (comprising 97 tcf associated gas and 90 tcf non-associated gas). Nigeria has the 7th largest natural gas deposit in the world, and holds the 4th largest reserves worldwide.
The country flares nearly eight billion cubic meters of gases annually. This flared ‘eight billion cubic meters of gases’ the World Bank’s GGFR reveals, is enough to “generate electricity for over 75 million of its population that lack access to electricity.”
Data obtained from local reports show that oil and gas companies operating in Nigeria burn over $3.5 to $5 billion yearly from the over 257 flow stations in the Niger Delta. Nigeria, interestingly, flared about 17.15 per cent of the 95,471 metric tonnes of gas produced in June 2015 alone, a report from Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) revealed. This too is very sad in a country where more than 70 percent of its 180 million population live below the poverty threshold.
For over three decades, Nigeria has been shifting the deadline for gas flaring starting from 1979. The government’s newest deadline was 2020. That date too has been technically shifted by 10 years. That’s because Nigeria recently became signatory to the “Zero Routine Flaring by 2030” Initiative by the United Nations, meaning that the government has shifted attention to 2030. With this new goal post, Nigeria is set to lose about 50 billion dollars in the next decade to gas flaring.
Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, in a piece published in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, Bulletin for December 2017-January 2018 revealed that gas flaring led to “the burning of money that would have been used to generate wealth, create employment and also generate electricity for the people”.
“In this country, right now, we have 178 gas flare sites… Daily, we flare around 755 million standard cubic feet per day. You can imagine how much we lose as a country, the carbon credit we would have gotten from this, the electricity we would have generated, the LPGs (liquefied petroleum gas)…” a representative of the minister at the Gas Buyers’ Forum, organised by the Gas Aggregation Company of Nigeria in Abuja was quoted as saying.
In 2008, Nigeria launched the Gas Master Plan (“NGMP”) which provided a roadmap for the exploitation, rapid development and effective distribution of Nigeria’s robust gas reserves. Nigeria has so far made relative progress since the inception of the NGMP, with the gas supply market increasing from 300 million to 2 billion cubic feet per day (cfpd).
But gases even have greater and growing domestic value. There are millions of Nigerians who are reverting to the use of gas cylinders and 1 kilogram of gas in Nigeria local market sells at 300 – 400 Naira (nearly 1 dollar). The potential of gas in Nigeria is great but no one may say just how great until the right policy and strategic planning meets opportunity and potential.
The era of crude oil is gradually fading away. The recent fumbling of oil prices is a pointer. Even more, the attention to renewable energy is getting higher, as the original markets for crude, whether in Europe, Asia or America are doing everything possible to sideline oil at most in the nearest future, whereas the era of gas is just emerging.
A lot of European nations are either liquidizing their gases or conserving them through re-injection. Nigeria might not liquidize or re-inject gases but the country has lingered too long with the dangers of gas flaring, which harms health as wealth is wasted.