The Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) has applauded the current action by the Rivers State Government to address the vexed issues of oil theft and refining of stolen crude oil and the consequent release of soot into the environment.
It will be recalled that civil society groups, local communities, the media, and youths under the auspices of the Young Friends of the Earth Nigeria (YFoEN) had in the last five years been engaged in sustained research and advocacy with the aim of getting the different tiers of governments and its regulatory institutions to take decisive actions to halt the persistent ambient air pollution witnessed in Rivers State.
ERA/FoEN stated that four years after local communities, civic groups, the media and youths dissatisfied by government’s refusal to act, protested on the streets of Port Harcourt and to the offices of the governor, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), and Shell; the government of Rivers State finally decided to take the first tentative steps on the road to dealing with this hydra-headed monster.
Although artisanal refining of stolen crude oil is indicated as the current accelerator of soot and ambient air pollution in the Niger Delta region, it is also important to point out that decades of reckless exploration and production activities by multinational companies such as Shell, ill maintained oil pipelines and facilities, routine gas flaring and lax regulatory framework are responsible for the dangerous situation in which millions of people who reside in the Niger Delta region now find themselves.
ERA/FoEN noted that a 2016 World Health Organisation (WHO) fact sheet on ambient air pollution states that air pollution around the world is responsible for 4.2 million premature deaths globally every year. The report further states that exposure to air pollution is also responsible for increasing rates of stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.
The environmental group added that hospitals across Rivers State are reporting a marked uptick in patients presenting with respiratory illnesses especially young children whose lungs are unable to withstand the constant poisoning from air pollution. There are also reports of increase in patients suffering severe burns from explosions resulting from utilising improperly refined kerosene from artisanal refining processes.
Dr. Godwin Uyi Ojo, Executive Director of ERA/FoEN, stated: “Although the current action of the Rivers State Government is a welcomed respite for the people of the state, more still needs to be done. The governments of other Niger Delta states need to take similar actions by identifying and properly decommissioning all artisanal stolen crude oil refining sites in their states to halt this self-inflicted destruction of our environment and unnecessary loss of lives.”
Dr Ojo also called for the development of a holistic framework that addresses both the supply of artisanal products and the high demands for these products in our communities which include rising cost of living, unemployment, and severe impact from hydrocarbon pollution on rural livelihoods.
“There is the need for providing alternative income generation sources for these youths to discourage them from the illegal act, hence Governments at all levels must as a matter of necessity diversify our economy from oil and gas dependence and towards a transition to renewable energy sources such as solar mini-grid and off-grid systems,” he said.
A recent report by the federal government confirms that over 200 million barrels of crude oil worth about $3.5 billion was stolen in 2021. Considering the heavy reliance on borrowings to fund government activities, the federal government and its regulatory institutions should be at the forefront of the fight against oil theft and artisanal oil refining, state ERA/FoEN.
Mike Karikpo, Director of Programmes and Administration of ERA/FoEN, alleged that “security agencies in the Niger Delta region aid, influence and provide protection for oil thieves and artisanal oil refining activities. This is therefore a matter of national security and president Buhari needs to wield the big stick and cleanse the Augean stable that has become the security architecture in the Niger Delta region.”
ERA/FoEN further called on the federal government and state governments in the Niger Delta region to as a matter of urgency convene a national dialogue to discuss and agree on practical steps to take in the short, medium, and long term to holistically deal with the menace of oil theft and artisanal oil refining as well as the supply and demand for these dangerous products.
In the short term, ERA/FoEN called on all state governments in the Niger Delta region to immediately identify and properly decommission all artisanal refining sites in their states, ensuring that this process of decommissioning does not contribute to further release of soot into the atmosphere.
ERA/FoEN urged the government to “work with the youths particularly the ERA-led Young Friends of the Earth ambient air quality monitors, who have been trained and have been conducting air quality investigations in communities in the Niger Delta since 2018 to provide quarterly updates on ambient air quality as well as household air quality to enable adequate development planning and actions.
“Conduct health surveys across the region to ensure early detection and treatment of air pollution related illnesses.
“Identify and shame or prosecute filling stations and their owners who buy and sell their illegal products to the unsuspecting public. Also identify, shame and or prosecute big companies and other businesses that use diesel from artisanal refineries to power their generators for dealing in stolen items.
“Provide alternative clean renewable energy in local communities as well as fuel efficient clean cook stoves to drive down demand for illegally refined crude products.
“The federal government should identify, investigate, and prosecute all members of our security agencies in the Niger Delta region who are active owners and participants in the stolen crude oil trade, those who aid and abet the operations of gangs involved in stealing crude oil for illegal refining and those who provide protection at artisanal refining sites while being paid with public funds.
“The federal government must address the huge electricity supply gap and the rising cost of cooking gas that is driving demand for artisanal oil products. “Governments at all levels should develop a national just transition development plan that prioritises environmental protection and conservation as well as the efficient utilization of resources in a circular economy model,” ERA/FoEN posited.