By Jennifer Huang | World Power II: Environment
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According to the World Bank’s 1995 report “Defining an Environmental Development Strategy for the Niger Delta,” about 187 cubic meters of associated gas billows forth with every cubic meter of oil pumped. Shell estimates the amount to be much lower at 28 cubic meters per barrel, but affirms that 95 percent of this gas is flared — more than 56 million cubic meters every day.
According to Nigerian Minister of State for the Environment Imeh Okopido, flaring in the Niger Delta makes up about 20 percent of the worldwide total. The U.S. Department of Energy calculated a release of 11 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon by Nigerian flares in 1998 and more than 300 million metric tons since 1963. About 12 million tons of methane were released from Nigerian flares last year.
Petroleum companies agree that it’s a serious problem. “[Flares] are a huge waste of this natural resource and have other severe implications for the environment,” said Ifeanyi Mbanefo, a Shell representative in Nigeria.
But flaring continues due to the logic of market-driven economics.
“[Associated gas] has been basically a byproduct that has had no value,” said Audie Setters, general manager of international gas at ChevronTexaco. “You can put big investments and you can build power projects in Africa, but there’s nobody there to buy anything. I mean, there are some projects in West Africa but there’s more gas than there are people who can use the power and the gas. A lot of it comes down to distance to market.”
Nnimmo Bassey, director of Nigerian activist organization Environmental Rights Action, believes the issue is not markets, but poverty. “You have these gas flares burning up the night sky, and yet people [living there] don’t have electricity,” he said. “Of course people are willing to use gas, and a huge percentage of these people are relying on firewood and kerosene.”
Nigerian environment minister Okopido estimates that flared gas in Nigeria, if captured, could generate $2 billion (U.S.) annually. But since oil and gas industry economics do not permit this, communities near oil wells must live with the consequences of flaring.
Nigerian activist groups cite a litany of environmental damages from gas flares, including air pollution, acid rain, soil and crop contamination and public health woes.
According to Bassey, the acid rain problem is evidenced by the fact that the corrugated iron roofs of Nigerian villagers now last less than five years.
“These are one of the cheapest [roofing materials] you can get to buy around here … They used to have a life span of up to 20 years,” Bassey said.
The Shell Nigeria website disputes the acidity claim, stating that Nigerian gas is “sweet” or low in sulfur, and therefore less likely to cause acid rain — a claim backed by the World Bank in their 1995 “Defining an Environmental Development Strategy” report (download PDF).
But an April 2000 report by the U.S. Department of Energy said that gas flaring in Nigeria “contributes to both the production of acid rain and increased carbon emissions into the atmosphere.”
A 1999 report by Human Rights Watch also found that air and soil temperatures were elevated 100 meters away from the flares, and that flares sometimes mixed oil with the gas to create soot that deposits on nearby land and buildings, visibly damaging the vegetation near the flare.
The flares have also been blamed for a range of health effects, including respiratory illness, hearing loss and serious childbirth problems.
“It doesn’t need too much checking to understand what is causing the high rate of mortality of children and the high rate of women having premature births and abortions,” said Nigerian activist and lawyer Oronto Douglas.
Shell disagrees that the flaring has any serious health impacts, stating on its website that “flaring has been blamed for asthma, bronchitis, skin problems and breathing problems in delta communities. There is no doubt that respiratory problems are common in Nigeria, including the Niger Delta, but there is no evidence to support a connection with gas flaring.”
The Nigerian government has acknowledged the damage caused by flaring and set dates for extinguishing the practice. Last summer, it reset its target date to end flaring from 2008 to 2004.
“2008 is not environment-friendly, sea level could rise and flush our most states out of the earth,” (sic) said environment minister Okopido in the July 15, 2002, edition of Africa News.
The move brought mixed reactions from oil companies.
Audie Setters of ChevronTexaco said the company will adhere to government regulations, no matter the date.
“We’re not going to do anything to keep us out of compliance,” he said.
Both ExxonMobil and Shell have said they are unable to meet the 2004 deadline, but hope to put out most flares by 2008. Cerris Tavinor, a spokeswoman for Royal Dutch Shell in London, said that the company is on schedule to meet that target.
“We have developed a comprehensive program to ensure that gas is put to economic use for the benefit of the country,” she said.
But a 2001 report published by Shell indicates that the corporation actually increased flaring in Nigeria by three percent in 2001, and by 11 percent globally.
Even the World Bank has expressed doubts about reducing or eliminating flaring — in Nigeria or anywhere else. It released a 2002 report (download PDF) saying, “despite commitments by governments and companies, and many successes in reducing flaring, global flaring levels have remained virtually constant since 1983.”