West Africa’s oil giant is choking its people with pollution because its rules are worth no more than the paper they are written on. Grimot Nane explains.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) held in Glasgow, UK, was yet another environmental conference that left campaigners feeling very disappointed, frustrated, or even betrayed. Of the annual COPs since 1995, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement have produced the most notable outcomes in the form of legally-binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions. But they were snubbed by the biggest polluters. COP21 was cast as the last chance to save the world from global warming, yet the nations that pollute the world the most treated it like a town hall meeting.

In her interview with veteran Nigerian environmental campaigner, Nnimmo Bassey, broadcaster Amy Goodman, asked him why he kept returning to the COP despite the disappointments and lack of commitment by those nations that matter most?

Bassey has fought for decades against oil pollution, carbon emissions and global warming, and their heinous consequences in Nigeria. And the Nigerian government, under General Sani Abacha’s regime, murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nnimmo’s close colleague and fellow campaigner for his “inconvenient” campaigns.

Nigeria has been a major global producer of crude oil and remains a top flarer of oil industry-associated gas. Each year the nation flares at least 70 million cubic metres of natural gas – an acute accelerator of global warming – generating a loss of $2.5bn a year in gas revenues. Attempts by the administration to reduce gas flaring have cost billions of dollars with only increases in emissions in return. The penalties to deter gas flaring by oil producers exceed $1bn a year, but the Nigerian government and its many ministries and agencies never collect it.

Penalties to deter gas flaring by oil producers exceed $1bn a year, but the Nigerian government and its many ministries and agencies never collect it.

Gas flaring in Nigeria contributed about 22.6 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2019 after seven decades of similar output. A Nigerian oil-sector insider asserted that gas-flaring data was deliberately unreliable. He said sponsors and monitors of gas flaring and carbon-emissions data were under pressure to be “very conservative” with their figures. He said the data presented had to be low enough to appear manageable, but high enough to attract investment.

If profits continue and investors are willing, why should the rentier Nigerian government bother? And while it boasts that its policies are the best in the world – based on endorsements from the World Bank, International Energy Agency, or Price-Waterhouse-Cooper – those same policies have become spectacular failures because of a lack of enforcement.

If profits continue and investors are willing, why should the rentier Nigerian government bother?

Nigeria has demonstrated the assertion by economist Geoffrey M Hodgson, that rules on paper that are not enforceable are mere declarations. Hodgson emphasises that nations with the best-enforced institutions always perform better. The Associated Gas Reinjection Act (1979), Natural Gas Flaring Commercialisation Programme (2002), National Gas Master Plan (2008), and National Gas Plan (2017), have all failed to produce a mechanism that could achieve zero-net flaring in 2020 as was proposed.

The Petroleum Industry Bill 2020 and the Climate Change Act 2021 are unlikely to achieve the same in 2030. These policies are impressive and workable on paper, but the government lacks the morality and will to enforce them. Note, neither the executive, nor the judiciary can enforce them. The lax laws that govern the Nigerian oil industry, gives a free hand to polluters and criminal practices.

The lax laws that govern the Nigerian oil industry, gives a free hand to polluters and criminal practices.

The Niger Delta, the source of Nigeria’s national wealth, is an ecocide hotspot: a region of excessive environmental degradation. It is also a sacrifice zone: an area of ruthless exploitation and degradation for profit without remediation or compensation. The cost to residents, their health and livelihoods are “forever incalculable.” The government does not care neither, do the polluters. Less than 0.25% of Nigerians work in the oil and gas sector, yet tens of millions live and die, prematurely, from causes related to the sector’shazardous pollutants.

Bassey’s and other climate and environmental campaigners’ fights at home are no easier than their fights in the global arena. And the Nigerian government must accept policies on paper are hot air unless they are enforceable.

Moonshine motoring
Rivers State capital, Port Harcourt – Nigeria’s “Oil City” – has for several years endured daily coatings of soot. When you wake up in the morning in Port Harcourt, every outdoor surface, the ground, cars, roofs, garden flowers and crops, has a black tint. Air conditioning filters require cleaning or changing every week to remove soot. Windows and doors must remain closed despite the tropical heat to prevent the ingress of soot. The traffic light readout of mobile air-quality app, Air Visual, has, for months on end, been Red. For only one week was it Yellow. Formerly, rain dripping off roofs was, at worst, coloured with a faint hue of tan from dust. Now the rainwater is black with soot held in suspension.

Nigeria’s Oil City is now the City of Soot, with dire consequences. Tree planting is now the rage to mitigate carbon emissions in Nigeria. This, perhaps, is because the burden will be borne by civil society groups, schools, students, and pupils. However, much urban flora has died and many species of insects have died or migrated away from the city. No more sandflies. People too are leaving Port Harcourt. One émigré who has moved from Port Harcourt is activist Eugene Abels. As a member of the Extra Step Initiative, he took multiple agencies and ministries of the federal government to court (Case: FHC/PH/FHR/140/2019) in October 2019 over the soot problem. The guiltier the government and the more the evidence of its negligence, the longer the case will remain in courtr. Many similar suits over pollution have been brought against the government, with questionable outcomes. The soot itself comes from illegal, so-called Artisan refineries that turn crude oil into petrol, kerosine and diesel. Artesian refineries arose and grew rapidly because: the Nigerian government failed to maintain or expand the capacity of state-owned refineries; there is endemic fuel scarcity because of the theft of multi-billion-dollar fuel import deposits causing shortages; and widespread hoarding and price gorging.

A high fuel demand, lack of regulated fuels, and an abundance of easy-to-steal unrefined crude oil is irresistible. Nigeria’s refineries have a combined capacity to refine 445,000 barrels a day. The country does not need to import any refined fossil fuels. Yet, over 90% of its petrol supplies are imports. The quality of imported fuel is often low, making untested artisan fuels more acceptable to consumers. The scandal plaguing the Nigerian oil sector in 2022 is the mass importation of petrol adulterated with methanol creating a new wave of fuel scarcity. The government claims the mishap was possible because it does not check refined oil imports for methanol. Artisan fuels are thriving. Last year, the governor of Rivers State, Nyesome Wike, responded to mounting public outcries over the soot problem by saying “only God can solve it.” His government ignored countless public protests: anti-soot seminars; protest marches; media debates; and more,with contempt. Then, in the first week of January 2022, he put a ban on illegal artesian refineries, but with no comprehensible or consistent policy. The governor’s acknowledgement of the soot problem and his threat of a heavy-handed approach to handling owners of artisan refineries is working. It is probably why the Air Visual app now shows Yellow in Port Harcourt. But such executive orders are often short-lived.


Grimot Nane

Grimot is a political economist and journalist. His specialties are corruption, government failure, and institutional change. He holds a PhD in Development Economics. 

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