Petroleum Industry Act let us down, say Niger Delta communities

AFRICAN BUSINESS

Dissatisfaction over funds allocated to the communities of Nigeria’s Niger Delta Region by Nigeria’s historic Petroleum Industry Act in August has been exacerbated by the recent oil spill at Nembe in Baysela state.

In this article we report on the latest spill and investigate the discontents that continue to be expressed by communities in the oil-producing region.

Latest oil spill “like Hiroshima”

A dozen oil workers celebrated and high-fived each after capping a leaking wellhead that spewed over 20,000 barrels of oil per day for one month into the waterways of Nembe, in Nigeria’s Bayelsa state.

The oil spill, which mysteriously erupted on November 1 at a capped, non-producing well, left environmental devastation in its wake, including the death of marine life and damage to mangroves and waterways.

“It was like a Hiroshima site,” said Sharon Ikeazor, Nigeria’s minister of state for the environment, after she inspected the damage at the OML 29 Wellhead operated by Aiteo Eastern E&P Co., a Nigerian oil company. The licence is operated under a joint venture with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).

The river and ocean tides carried the spill into communities in neighbouring Rivers state, also part of the Niger Delta, where the majority of Nigeria’s oil and gas reserves are located. A unit of US services giant Halliburton was enlisted to cap the well.

The oil field was purchased by Aiteo from Shell and partners for $2.7bn in 2014 in one of the largest local acquisitions made as Shell scaled back its operations in Nigeria.

Cost of environmental damage in the Delta region

The Delta region has born the brunt of environmental damage from oil industry activity since Shell-BP became the first joint venture to drill for oil in 1956.

In January, Morris Alagoa, an environmental activist and representative of the Environmental Rights Action (ERA), described the situation to Nigerian daily The Nation as “grievous”, commenting that no water body in the region is unaffected by oil pollution.

“Not just known water bodies, creeks and water channels are contaminated too. You hardly see any lake, ocean or swamp in their natural form any more. It has been history of consistent degradation of water in the Niger Delta,” he told the paper.

The development expected from oil profits has rarely materialised in the region, even as Nigeria became one of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers. The average life expectancy is 10 years lower in the Niger Delta than elsewhere in Nigeria, and oil from spilt or sabotaged wells and pipelines continues to clog and choke mangroves, water supplies and the atmosphere.

Environmental damage and a lack of local economic opportunity have fuelled sporadic insurgencies in the region which have targeted oil infrastructure and government forces.

As a way to address disaffected communities and bring wider reforms to a lucrative but much-troubled industry, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari finally signed into law the long-awaited Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) in August 2021 after years of thwarted legislative efforts.

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