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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Nembe oil spill: Woes of the wellhead

Hundreds of well blowouts have been reported during the history of the oil and gas drilling activities globally.

Wellhead Woes
Wellhead Woes

According to a special report published by the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) on the wellhead blowout from Aiteo OML 29 Well 1 in Nembe, Bayelsa State, these undesired events have led to loss of lives and destruction of environments.

Oil or Gas well blowouts are not unexpected occurrences in this industry due to a number of factors, including the fact that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels constitute inherently volatile business.

The oil well blowout at Aiteo’s well 1 on its Oil Mining Lease (OML) 29 in the Santa Barbara River, Nembe Local Government, Bayelsa State, Nigeria, has attracted attention as its unending spewing has caused much harm and misery over the weeks since it ruptured on November 1, 2021.

A blowout occurs whenever there is the release of uncontrollable oil and gas from an oil well or gas well after all pressure control systems fail. It can occur during the drilling phase, well testing, well completion, during production, or during work over activities.

Mounted pressures due to the presence of highly pressurized oil or gases in the well, either over time or within a short period of time on the wellhead, usually cause well blowouts. They can also happen due to defective equipment and structural failures. 

There are three types of well blowouts. They are:

  • Underground blowout: This type of blowout is very uncommon – it occurs where fluid from deep high -pressurised formations flow upwards to a shallow, low, -pressurised formation and can occur where casing has not been set.
  • Subsea blowouts or underwater blowout: This type of blowout occurs offshore. An example is the BP Macondo Rig blowout in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. There are two main causes of a subsea or underwater blowout- they are equipment failures and imbalances with encountered subsurface reservoir pressure. This type of blowout is extremely difficult to control.
  • Surface blowouts: This is the most common type of blowout- the damage is visibly seen on the rig or well head- spilling gallons of oil into the environment and can cause grave damage. The force of the escaping fluid can be strong enough to damage the drilling rig. In addition to oil, the output of a well blowout might include natural gas, water, drilling fluid, mud, sand, rocks, and other substances

Occasionally blowouts can be so forceful that it is difficult if not impossible to control them directly from the surface, particularly if there is so much energy in the flowing zone that it does not deplete significantly over time. This appears to be the case of the OML29, Well 1 blowout in Nembe, Bayelsa state, Nigeria.

In such cases, if the well cannot be capped or contained, other wells (called relief wells) may be drilled to intersect the well or pocket, to allow kill-weight fluids to be introduced at depth. The incidences of pollution from well blowouts, oil spills and other oil exploration related activities have brought the Niger Delta region to the league of the most polluted places on the earth.

Generally, oil companies have become adept at avoiding blame over oil spills and well blowouts in the Niger Delta.

Their game has been to blame the victims, the poor community people whose livelihoods are tied to the quality of their environment and who have the least incentive to tamper with oil facilities.

Even though oil corporations regularly attempt to use the claim of sabotage as a means of escaping responsibility for operational failures, the widely held view that oil companies are completely excused from responsibility when pollution is caused by sabotage is not backed by law.

What has never been disputed is that no matter the cause of pollution in the oil fields, the companies have a responsibility to effect a thorough clean-up of impacted areas. And they have routinely failed to do this.

In a report by News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), in July 6, 2021, then Minister of Environment, Mohammad Abubakar, disclosed in a town hall meeting that Nigeria recorded 4,919 oil spills between 2015 to March 2021 and that the nation has lost 4.5 trillion barrels of oil to theft in four years. In his statement, he blamed majority of the spills on community sabotage while a meagre portion of the blame was accorded the oilcorporations.

According to him, “the operational maintenance is 106, while sabotage is 3,628 and yet to be determined 70, giving the total volume of oil spilled into the environment as 235,206 barrels.”

His assertion overlooked the fact that every aspect of oil extraction and production contributes a significant level of pollution to the immediate environment. The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) also recorded a total of 1,300 oil spill incidents between 2018 and 2019, averaging five oil spills a day.

The report can be downloaded here.

By Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)

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