N'Delta: Caught between oil multinationals and illegal refiners

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Chukwudi Akasike

THERE is no doubting the fact that the decades of oil exploration and exploitation in the Niger Delta has caused the region a lot worry. Though the activities of oil companies in the oil-bearing states could be said to be beneficial to a few, most inhabitants of the Niger Delta region live in poverty as a result of the devastation occasioned by oil exploration in their communities.

The host communities have always cried out over the environmental degradation that has affected their flora and fauna, leaving them with nothing to depend on as food. Apart from the rivers that have been polluted, communities habouring the oil firms have had a full dose of gradual but steady dilapidation of their land. From Rivers to Bayelsa, Delta and other oil-bearing states, the problem of oil pollution is commonplace.

But behind these issues of environmental degradation is a self-inflicted injury driven by greed and the passion for crime. It is no fiction that as the majority of Niger Delta people continue to agitate against many years of neglect by the government, a few of them hijacke the struggle by delving into illegal oil bunkering. The criminal act involves refining crude oil without licence and selling it to unsuspecting and willing customers.

While those involved in the shady deal of illegal refining and bunkering become rich overnight, the damage they do to the environment is unquantifiable. The consequence of illegal bunkering within the oil-bearing communities becomes evident as plantations refuse to yield fruits and crops due to the choking effects of crude oil that has been allowed to spill into the farms.

So far, the multinational oil companies operating in the Niger Delta region have always borne the blame for environmental degradation occasioned by oil spill. But the Joint Military Task Force operating in the region recently exposed the inglorious acts of oil bunkering and illegal refining.

In Ukwa West Local Government Area of Abia State, oil bunkering and illegal refining seem to have become a profession, as people in the area compete to outdo one another in the criminal act.

Shocked by the level of illegal bunkering within the area, Shell Petroleum Development Company, in August 2011, shut off 25,000 barrels of oil at the Imo River field. Its Vice-President, Safety, Environment, Sustainable Development and Communications, Mr. Tony Attah, told newsmen in Port Harcourt that the company was shocked by the audacity of illegal refiners and oil thieves operating in the axis.

Attah observed the monumental ecological damage in the affected area, noting that it had also led to the loss of billions of naira that would have accrued to the Federal Government as revenue.

“The spate of crude oil theft in the area is unprecedented. In September, we discovered some 16 illegal bunkering points within Imo River Field. The field straddles Abia and Rivers states and has five flow stations, a gas compressor station and several kilometres of pipelines, among other facilities. Aside oil loss to government and other stakeholders, significant portions of the stolen crude are spilled, blighting large swathes of the ecosystem.

“This is why production from the field will remain suspended until we are sure that crude thieves and saboteurs have left the area for good.”

Attah said illegal bunkering activities were first noticed in the area about two years ago, prompting government security forces to move there, dislodging the perpetrators and destroying dozens of barges and canoes.

“The criminal activity resumed recently, with crude thieves inflicting hacksaw cuts on pipelines to siphon crude into waiting barges and canoes, some of which can hold as much as 40,000 barrels of oil at a time,” he stated.

The SPDC vice-president pointed out that the oil thieves usually transfer the product into hundreds of articulated storage tanks with the capacity of 33,000 litres, saying, “many of these tanks dot the illegal local refineries along the river banks and creeks. In the process of siphoning oil from the wells, huge spills are caused, which are later blamed on the oil firms.”

He said Shell had suspected that much of the stolen oil was being sold to bigger vessels offshore, adding that the decision to shut down the oil field was targetted at frustrating the illicit business.

Attah added that the company was working closely with the respective state and local governments, the Department of Petroleum Resources and the company’s Joint Venture partners to tackle the menace of oil bunkering and illegal refining.

A group known as the National Coalition on Gas Flaring and Oil Spills in the Niger Delta, which observed the level of illegal bunkering in Ukwa West, said spills caused by oil majors were occasional, compared to that caused by illegal refining.

The NACGOND Coordinator, Mr. Inemo Samiama, said the people of the Niger Delta have their own share of responsibility in the destruction of their environment, maintaining that those involved in illegal refining and oil bunkering may not live long due to the health implications of exposing themselves to fire and crude oil. He said the level of oil bunkering in Ukwa West was of industrial scale.

Samiama, an expert in environmental matters, said “The attitude of our people is that ‘we are taking what belongs to us.’ I don’t have a problem with that; but please, can we do it in a way that does not destroy our own environment? In illegal refining, only 30 per cent of the refined oil is recovered, while the remaining 70 per cent is spilled into the creeks and rivers. During illegal refining, we cause damage to the environment that will last for decades, while future generations will have to pay for our greed.”

He expressed dissatisfaction over what he termed “government’s lukewarm attitude” to these activities, recalling that the Bayelsa State Government had remained silent on the recent Chevron oil rig fire in Southern Ijaw.

The group’s coordinator pointed out that government officials appeared to be clueless about the level of environmental degradation taking place in the area.

He called on governments of states where oil bunkering thrives to protect the people and the environment through their Ministries of Environment by ensuring that the activities of illegal refiners and bunkerers are curtailed.

However, the Joint Military Task Force in the Niger Delta region is not relenting in its determination to fight these illicit activities. In 2011 alone, the JTF destroyed no fewer than 6,000 illegal refineries across the Niger Delta region.

The JTF spokesman, Lt.-Col. Timothy Antigha, disclosed this while handing over seven suspected oil thieves and five trucks filled with illegally refined petroleum products to the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps in Port Harcourt.

Antigha, who said the JTF discovered the illegal refineries during one of its operations late last year, added that over 150 persons suspected to be involved in illegal bunkering have been arrested by the JTF. He said the task force also impounded four barges and five ships, disclosing that the suspects had been handed over to the appropriate authorities for prosecution.

On the seven suspects handed over to the NSCDC, Antigha said, “We are gathered here today in order to transfer seven suspected oil thieves to the civil defence corps.

“The suspects were arrested with five trucks loaded with illegally refined petroleum products at Water Lines in Port Harcourt and Oyigbo Local Government Area. They are part of the criminals that have been selling substandard petroleum products.

“The product they sell is not up to NNPC’s standard. We took samples of the product to the DPR and it was confirmed that they were of poor quality,” the JTF spokesman said.

Antigha identified the suspects as Babayo Dauda, Mohammed Abdullahi, Bukar Alima, and Jeremah Umaru, Ali Salisu, Ibrahim Abdullahi and Ikechukwu Ukaegbu.

He explained that with the recent restructuring of the JTF, the task force now had five sectors across the formations of the Nigerian Army in the oil-bearing region. Antigha stated that the JTF was handing over the suspects to the NSCDC for further investigations and prosecution, even as he said the task force had no power to prosecute civil matters.


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