Dangerous crude oil refinery craze in the product-starved Niger Delta

2010-03-19
THE GUARDIAN Newspaper

Buying a vehicle in some parts of the Niger Delta is simpler than getting fuel to run it. Either Premium Motor Spirit (petrol) or AGO (diesel) and even household cooking fuel, PKK (kerosene) are scarce to come buy.

Yet, from this region of the country comes most of the crude oil from which these by-products are derived. Three of the four refineries in the country are located in the Niger Delta.

Ironically, while a litre of petrol officially sells for N65 and is available in many parts of the country, but in the Niger Delta, particularly in some parts of the region, a litre sells for N140. It is a classical case of what Chinua Achebe described in Things fall apart as, living by the riverbank yet washing hands with the spittle.

But, as the Westerners say, necessity is the mother of invention. The people of the area have found for themselves a local way of circumventing the scarcity of petroleum products. They resort to "crude" refining of the crude.

The people of the riverside, particularly the Urhobos and Ijaws have for ages been refining palm wine to produce local gin called ogogoro or Sapele water. As the commerce in local gin production fell in both patronage and revenue, the local people set their eyes on a "high incoming yielding" venture: The crude production of petroleum products using almost similar "technology" to that of ogogoro.

Their ingenuity is not different from those of Biafrans who during the civil war (1967-1970) invented a local effective bomb, refined petrol and printed their own currencies. But like all inventions in the country, the technology was allowed to die like the succession gamble.

With the arrest and destruction of the local crude refining business in the Niger Delta, a local technology is about to be extinguished in the face of daunting standard refining challenges.

The local implements for the "refining" of petrol consist of large plastic receptacles, empty drums, firewood, and cooling water.

The crude oil is placed in the drum and put to intense heat. At a point, the petrol vapour that comes out is piped through a cooling system into a plastic receptacle to condense into petrol.

Needless to say that the resultant petrol lacks quality control and therefore, can never be of the same grade as the one produced in scientific environment of standard refineries.

Crude oil when produced in standard refineries gives off by-products such as petrol, kerosene, diesel, aviation fuel, greasing oil, plastic enamel, and others. Local refiners may not know these or do not care. Their gaze is on petrol for which there is a ready and lucrative market.

Crude oil during distillation, gives off petrol at temperatures of between 35 degrees centigrade and 200 degrees centigrade while diesel comes of at between 250 degrees centigrade and 350 degrees centigrade.

However, there have been several reports of explosions during distilling of petroleum products with disastrous consequences.

The people of the Niger Delta engaged in this illegal refining did not set out originally to refine crude oil. They started with bursting pipelines to siphon petrol and diesel and condensate. When that line of activity was getting really dangerous and many people were being incinerated at the point of siphoning and also being arrested by security agents, they set off on this more private line.

However, majority of the crude oil used for the illegal refining is stolen or what in local parlance, is called bunkering.

Security agents in the Niger Delta did not realise this line of activity early. The military Joint Task Force (JTF) initially concentrated in going after militants. The task force was baffled how militants in the mangrove forest were getting fuel to run their speedboats and generators.

The illegal refiners were mostly responsible for supplying militants their fuel needs even though the petrol and diesel wreck havoc on the engines. Soon enough, at the height of the war in the creeks between the JTF and the militants, the former chanced on a thriving illegal refinery in Delta State. It was destroyed. But as the task force discovered more illegal refineries and confiscated the implements and sometimes made arrests, more of such centres sprang up in mostly Delta, Rivers and Bayelsa states.

Between October and December last year, the JTF discovered and destroyed over 1,500 illegal refineries in the region. Even at that, the outfit estimates that there are twice more outfits in different parts of the region.

Just last week,over 102 illegal refineries were destroyed in a marshy forest near Ogbekobor village in Burutu Local Council of Delta State. And in Rivers State, about 700 outfits and their operators on their own accord gave up the tools and equipment to a government committee set up to mop the state of the make shift refineries. That, definitely, is not the end of the operation.

In Rivers illegal refining activities are concentrated in Gokana Local Council according to the JTF, which in a special operation recently, discovered over 400 illegal refineries.

Col. Timothy Antigha, spokesman for the JTF revealed that the task force had destroyed more than 1,000 illegal refineries in Gokana, in the southeast of Rivers State. Some, he said, were located in people's homes.

He is pained that the activities of the operators were destroying the aquatic life and the ecosystem especially around the operational areas of the bunkerers. The damage he said cannot be repaired by nature for a long time.

A commercial boat operator told The Guardian: "All you need to set up a local refinery are three iron drums, four long pipes and a tank container like the one used in pumping water in homes. "With about N100,000 you can set up your own illegal refinery", he said.

The process of crude oil refining he added is not different from the process of producing the popular local gin, ogogoro. He explained that two metal drums are stood on a heated pile of red earth with connector pipes trained on receptor drums.

The proliferation of illegal refineries is causing immense worry for the JTF whose mandate includes the protection of strategic oil and gas installations as well as tackling the growing militancy in the region as disclosed by the task force Commander, Maj.-Gen. Sarkin-Yaki Bello, who expressed apprehension that illegal refineries could spread to parts of the country if not nipped in the bud.

Said Bello recently: "Intelligence and overfly reports had indicated that there were over 1,000 illegal refineries in different parts of the Niger Delta. The rising wave of illegal refineries is of great concern because of the economic and environmental impact on the nation".

He added: "It is a new menace with grave dimensions. Since people now know what people do with crude oil, it may move to other parts of the country where there are oil installations, don't be surprised."

Bello said initially, kidnapping was restricted to the Niger Delta, but soon spread to every part of the country.

According to him, "illegal oil refining is like any other crime. It mutates as the criminals try to find other means of livelihood."

He stressed that aerial photographs had shown vast areas of devastation as a result of the activities of the illegal bunkerers and refinery operators.

"I can't see how such areas can be useful in the near future with the level of degradation," he said.

Bello added that operating illegal refineries was an economic crime that involved people from all levels in society and not necessarily former militants.

A former illegal operator who identified himself as Benibor Atagah said: "We are into illegal refining because we live in the riverine area where we cannot find petroleum products to buy. The only way we move about is by boat. Most of the time we go to Warri to by petrol but that is a long distance. Before you get back, all the fuel you bought is finished. That is why the refining business is booming. The government has failed to supply us petroleum products in the riverine communities.

"The soldiers are going about destroying the illegal refineries but they don't know that they cannot stop it because many people have built very small illegal refineries and they are refining products at their backyard. Many people are now involved in the business including the wealthy in the society.

"We operate in groups and we chose locations far away from our villages to set up the refineries that is why you always see then together in one area. We do that because we don't want the village people to be affected when there is any explosion or fire.

"We sell the products to boat operators, but many of the boat operators are now refining their own. So, we sometimes take the products to the cities especially Warri to sell," he said.

Indeed, naval sources in Warri claim several boats have been intercepted on the waterways carrying plastic cans (jerry cans) filled with locally refined products on their way to Warri for sale.

As if to confirm the development, shortly before the JTF departed Warri to destroy the illegal refineries at Ogbekobor, the Sector 1 Commander, Col. Jamil Sarham took journalist to two boats loaded with refined products.

A former governorship aspirant in Delta State, Mr. Emmanuel Igbini, a Petroleum Engineer, blamed the government for the proliferation of illegal refineries. He said there was no plan to make petroleum products available in the in the riverine communities hence the people improvise.

"Sometimes ago, floating petrol stations were commissioned in the riverine communities in Delta by Chief E. K. Clark. Where are the floating filling stations today?" he asked.

"First of all, you said that the refineries are illegal. The legal refineries have refused to function because of the deliberate policy of government and some cabalÉto further exploit the petroleum subsidy which they convert into their pocket.

"The people involved in illegal refinery are people in the local community, the people cannot afford the expensive amount petroleum products are being sold so they have to improvise,after all, the real refining process is a simple process".

Igbini said the Federal Government has failed in its constitutional duty to the people who cannot buy at high price and it is unlawful for the JTF to go and destroy the refineries, in this regard.

He argued that the fact that there had not been any report of anyone dying as a result of refining the product shows that they have the necessary skill to do so.

Though there are two national refineries in the Ogoni axis of Rivers State, the non-availability of petroleum products for local consumption and the over 15 years of Shell abandonment of its facilities in the area, paved way for local refineries to thrive.

Rivers which prides itself as the treasure base of the country by virtue of her abundant oil and gas, is also home to the country's primier and largest refinery. But ironically, getting a litre of petrol, remaines a nightmare for motorists and small-scale business operators in the state since last year.

The reasons being that the refineries are not working. And since the country now depends largely on imported petroleum products, the little that is met for Rivers State is barely enough to go round.

Prior to the scarcity, filling stations in Port Harcourt get an average of 60 trucks daily. But due to the purported damaged pumps, the city now gets less than 29 trucks daily which is grossly insufficient.

Though the Port Harcourt depot has24 loading arms which could guarantee the loading of 500 trucks daily, less than four are today functionalaccording to Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria (IPMAN) sources.

In desperation to get fuel, some unsuspecting motorists have been buying the products from these illegal refiners.

The old port Harcourt refinery was built in 1965 with installed capacity of 60,000 barrels daily,enough to meet domestic needs then. The new refinery has an installed capacity of 150,000 barrels daily. The two refineries are almost grounded due to lack of maintenance.

Head, Environment and Conservation, Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, Nenibarini Zabbey, said in response to the interplay of unemployment and depletion of livelihood-dependable resources, that some youths in Ogoni and Andoni, have opted to engage in various acts of oil theft.

These, according to him, range from illegal bunkering to the once flourishing condensate theft at Soku oil terminals, and now booming local refineries, within the land and seascape.

Zabbey while talking about to how to ensure peaceful and sustainable natural resources exploitation and ecosystem protection of Ogoni and Andoni, explained that diesel is the principal output of the crude distillation process.

He explained: "Besides the criminality of it, the entire process of illegal bunkering and local oil refining is laden with uncontrollable oil spills into the environment, killing flora (plants) and fauna (animals) that community livelihoods depend upon.

"Moreover, the health of operators of local refineries is seriously endangered since they inhale the oozing poisonous aroma. Crude oil is one of the most complicated natural mixtures on earth, having a cocktail of poisons," Zabbey said.

On the assumption that oil stealing is the major source of financing the various militancy groups in the Niger Delta, the JTF decided to carryout a mass destruction of the illegal refining sites in the Eleme, Khana, Gokana and Tai Local Councils.

But these recalcitrant refiners forged on with their illicit trade and in the process, destroy the environment. For instance, when The Guardian recently visited Bodo, the entire creek and mangrove had been polluted.

Prof. Ben Naanen of the Department of History and Diplomatic Studies, University of Port Harcourt, pointed out that the Ogoni and their Andonineighbours have had a long and deep history of friendship and economic interdependence through trade and fishing.

But this relationship has often been tested by disputes over the control and unsustainable methods of exploitation of their common resources. According to him, in recent times an explosive factor has been introduced into the resource-based conflict dynamics of the Niger Delta Ð oil stealing.

"Bunkering in all its dangerous ramifications undermines communities and destroys the environment as huge wastes from the artisanal refineries are discharged into the environment".

He explained that unprofessional taping of oil from pipelines for these refineries currently contributes significantly to the oil spills which have been a central environmental scourge in the Niger Delta.

"Environmental degradation exacerbates poverty by undermining legitimate livelihoods. Bunkering further has deep implications for peace and stability in the region as the close links between bunkering, arms proliferation and militancy have been undisputedly established", said Naanen.

Regarding Andoni-Ogoni relations, he said the control of operational territories by bunkering syndicates disturbingly remains a potential source of conflict between the two communities.

Above all, he explained that the activity is inestimably dangerous to the lives of its operators. According to him, countless lives have been lost to fire outbreaks in the process of artisanal refining or while transporting highly inflammable bunkered petroleum products.

Worried by the grave consequence of the activities of the illegal refiners, the State Governor, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, early in the month directed the State Commissioner of Police to redeploy all the Divisional Police Officers (DPOs) in the four Ogoni Local Councils following complaints that the security agents, particularly, the police aid illegal oil theft in the area.

Amaechi, who has made several appeals to the people of the area to stem the illegal refining of petroleum products, said the redeployment of the police officers is part of measures to stop the illegal activities going on in the area.

The governor gave the directive while addressing stakeholders' meeting of Ogoni people in Government House, Port Harcourt yesterday. The local councils are Khana, Gokana, Tai and Eleme.

Amaechi explained that since the consensus opinion of Ogoni's indicate that the security men in the area, including the Police, aid the illegal activities, it would be proper to redeploy the DPOs in the area to other postings because they have not discharged their duties diligently.

As part of measures to ensure that the illegal activity is checked, he constituted a 44-member surveillance team, with 10 persons drawn from each of the four local councils of Ogoniland, in addition to the Council chairmen as automatic members, to consistently patrol the area in collaboration with the Police and JTF to fish out all illegal bunkerers.

The Committee has the Chairman of Eleme Local Council, Mr. Oji Ngofa as its head. Members were charged with the responsibility of identifying those involved in illegal refining activities in the area and assist in apprehending them.

When The Guardian contacted, the Commissioner of Police, Sulieman Abba, he said the governor's directive is appropriate since it would enhance efficient policing of the area.

He explained that the Police Command would respect the wishes of the Ogoni people who alleged that security agents are in the know of those engaged in product theft.

So far, over 835 illegal oil bunkerers have surrendered their equipment to the Ngofa-led taskforce. The repentant oil thieves, who claimed they are from Gokana voluntarily surrendered to the team.

Ngofa explained that government had resolved to forgive all those involved in illegal oil theft in the Ogoni axis and other parts of the state on the condition that they willingly desist from the act.

However, the illegal oil bandits who declined to mention their names to journalists, disclosed they were never involved in pipeline vandalism, rather, they merely obtain the crude they refine from old facilities abandoned by Shell.

Some of them said they were involved in the illicit business because of lack of job opportunities.

Ngofa warned that after Saturday, March 13, whosoever was arrested for locally refining petroleum products wouldbe prosecuted by the government.

He explained that following a tip-off, the committee was able to apprehend a tipper marked Edo, BE 700 BEN loaded with 10 drums of locally refined diesel from Bodo. According to him, the tipper was covered with sand to hoodwink passersby.

Another member of the Committee and Chairman of Gokana Local Council, Chief Victor Giadom, noted that illegal bunkering activities had further devastated the Ogoni ecosystem and destroyed fishing and farming activities of the local people.

According to him, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) officials working in Ogoniland were worried by the activities of the bunkerers as they generate new spill sites in Ogoniland.

Now, having realized the threat to the environment, peace and security posed by bunkering, Naanen, saidit is important to identify sustainable measures to check the practice, which include helping to provide alternative sources of income for the large numbers of jobless youths in the area as poverty and the general lack of opportunities have been a crucial factor in bunkering.

And aware that poverty and unemployment are largely responsible for the proliferation of oil theft and illegal refineries, he called on the Federal and Rivers State governments to take immediate measures to provide alternative and legitimate livelihoods for the youths as a means of checking the activities.

Gen. Bello told The Guardian recently in Yenagoa that between October and December, 104 Battalion of Sector 3, JTF, had discovered the illegal refineries in Wenol, Deyor, Kidere, Bidere, Boobobari, Bodo, Biara, Kpor and Bunu communities all in Gokana Local Council of Rivers State.

He explained that the operation led to the discovery in Bara and Gokana y a Mitsubishi L300 bus car marked XT 555 PHC containing six drums of substance suspected to be illegally refined diesel and three unregistered motorcycles.

He said: "The driver and other occupants of the bus absconded at the sight of the soldiers. However, a driver's license belonging to a certain Samuel Morokpo, residing in Dayor community was found inside the vehicle".

The JTF commander also noted that a raid by the JTF at an illegal refinery on December 7 led to the arrest of seven suspects and three motorcycles operators who were caught siphoning crude oil from a damage oil well head.

He gave the names of the seven persons arrested to include: Mr. Barida Maute, Mr. Bauitule Deele, Mr. Burabary Pata, Mr. Kisi Aduba, Mr. Friday Mubekee, Mr. Bariiyewin Gbara and Mr. Batuni Olulu.

Those arrested he said had since been handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for possible prosecution.

"These criminals have reacted by threatening to attack JTF personnel for destroying their means of livelihood", he said.

Bello however used the opportunity to advise the suspected criminals and those still at large to desist from such threat and acts as the JTF has the capacity to contain any situation in the region.

He warned the public on the danger of patronising the illegal products as it has damaging effect on the vehicles beside the crime of economic sabotage.

Nigeria is the 10th largest oil producer in the world, the third largest in Africa and the most prolific oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. The Nigerian economy is largely dependent on its oil sector, which supplies 95 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings.

Prior to 1954 there were no refineries in Africa. In the 50 years between 1954 and 2004, 48 refineries were built in Africa of which Nigeria has four, all owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC).

The Nigerian government announced its intention to sell 51 per cent of each of the refineries in 2004.

The Kaduna Refinery was built in 1980 with a capacity of 5.5 million mt/yr that is, 110,000 barrels daily (b/d). A Lube Baseoil plant was added in 1982, and a LAB plant in 1987.

Warri Refinery was built in 1978 with a capacity of 6.2 million mt/yr (125,000 b/d). A Carbon Black plant and a Polypropylene plant were added in 1986.

Port Harcourt Refinery is made up of two refineries, built in 1965 and 1989. In 1993 they were merged into one, with a total capacity of 10.50 million mt/yr (210,000 b/d).

The Eleme Petrochemical plant, which was built adjacent to the Port Harcourt refinery in 1995, has an Olefin production capacity of 483,000 mt/yr, a Polypropylene capacity of 80,000 mt/yr and a Polyethylene production capacity of 250,000 mt/yr.

Domestic petroleum demand stood at 250,000 barrels daily, so a portion of the output of the four refineries could now be exported. However, by the early 1990s petrol output was sufficiently short of the growing domestic demand to require that the NNPC still refine some petrol abroad.

The government through the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) issued private refinery construction licenses in October 2004 to 18 companies for the setting up of various sized crude oil refineries.

In March 2007, DPR cancelled all 18 licenses for sundry reasons. Since then, only one has been re-issued.

 

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