Thursday 9th December 2021
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Rick Steiner: Nembe oil spill needs immediate govt, industry response

As a scientist specialising in oil spill issues globally for several decades (including in the Niger Delta), I am deeply concerned about the Santa Barbara South field, OML 29 oil and gas well blowout at Nembe LGA, Bayelsa State, Niger Delta.

Rick Steiner
Prof. Rick Steiner

After reviewing video of the outflow rate, the outflow is occurring under extremely high pressure. I estimate that the flow rate from the failed well is at least 10,000 barrels of toxic hydrocarbons (methane and crude oil) per day, and possibly twice that.

Thus, after 15-20 days of continuous flow, the spill has already released a minimum of 150,000 barrels – 200,000 barrels of toxic hydrocarbons into the sensitive mangrove ecosystem in Nembe LGA, and possibly twice that much.  Even by international standards, this constitutes a major hydrocarbon spill, and its impacts are likely to be serious, extensive, and long lasting.

The people of the Niger Delta and international experts always worried about the mess and dilapidated infrastructure Shell would leave behind when it abandoned the onshore Niger Delta, and with the Nembe blowout, our worst fears are confirmed.

Having been appointed as Technical Advisor to the Ijaw Diaspora Council to assess and advise re: this major spill, I contacted the Responsible Parties – Aiteo and NNPC – as well as the Federal Ministry of Environment and NOSDRA. I have had no reply as yet. I am deeply concerned that the Responsible Parties did not have in place a rapid well kill capability to promptly stop the blowout (as required by Nigerian law), and the blowout continues, making the damage considerably worse.

In my professional estimation, this constitutes gross negligence/recklessness on behalf of Aiteo/NNPC, and the government should respond accordingly.

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Nigerian law requires that Responsible Parties – in this case Aiteo/NNPC – to immediately stop an oil/gas outflow, promptly deploy sufficient cleanup equipment and personnel to contain and remove spilled pollutants, and initiate an environmental damage assessment, and compensate communities for damage caused.

However, as is typical of all oil companies in such disasters, Aiteo is presenting a false narrative to the Nigerian people regarding the Nembe spill – understating the size and impact of the disaster and overstating the effectiveness of its response.

My urgent recommendations regarding the Nembe spill are as follow:

  1. Aiteo/NNPC must immediately kill the blowout (either fitting a capping stack to the failed wellhead, drilling a relief well nearby to conduct a bottom kill of the well, or other kill technique), as required by Nigerian law, and retain the failed wellhead (“Christmas Tree”) structure for future independent analysis to ascertain the cause of the failure.
  2. Aiteo/NNPC must immediately deploy sufficient oil spill containment and cleanup equipment and personnel to collect as much of the spilled hydrocarbon pollutant as possible, hiring local community members as possible.  This is clearly a Tier III oil spill (the largest category), well beyond the capability of local cleanup assets such as Clean Nigeria Associates, and Aiteo/NNPC should contract Oil Spill Response Limited (OSRL) in Southampton UK to conduct a large-scale Tier III spill response.
  3. Aiteo/NNPC must provide immediate, interim financing to the affected communities of at least $500,000, to be used by the communities in their initial response to the spill.  It should be made clear that this initial funding will in no way prejudice future community claims for compensation for the spill.  This initial compensation will allow the community to purchase alternative food resources during the spill (as fish from the spill area are contaminated and must not be caught and consumed); purchase Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); and conduct its overall response to this emergency.
  4. Aiteo/NNPC, Bayelsa State, and the federal government must agree to support a technical advisor for the Ijaw communities to join the official Joint Investigation Team (JIT).
  5. Aiteo/NNPC must immediately commission an independent, scientific environmental damage assessment by a credible, independent scientific institution.
  6. Aiteo must preserve all evidence, including documents, video and photographs, and actual equipment (e.g. the failed Christmas Tree structure) that may be relevant to determining the cause of the wellhead failure and spill.
  7. Aiteo must provide the community with all records pertaining to this well, including its design and installation date, any/all inspection and maintenance the company has performed on the well, any deficiencies the company has noted, all corrective/remedial actions the company has taken on the well, etc.
  8. The Nigerian federal government should convene an independent inquiry as to the cause, response, and impact of this major oil spill. 
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Aiteo’s claim that the blowout was caused by sabotage is a conventional, default assertion by oil companies in the Niger Delta, and it remains unproven.  It is as likely, and perhaps more so, that the blowout was due to equipment failure. Until the failed wellhead can be examined by independent engineers, any claims of causation are mere speculation.

Regardless, Aiteo/NNPC have a duty of care to reasonably prevent and respond to Intentional Third-Party Damage to their oil infrastructure. Thus, regardless of the ultimate cause, they clearly failed their legal responsibility.

Likewise, for Aiteo to assert that environmental damage will be minimal is equally unsupportable, as a credible, scientific environmental damage assessment has not been conducted. In my experience with such major spills in the Niger Delta and elsewhere, the damage will be serious, extensive, and long lasting. And the company’s claim that the hydrocarbon outflow is composed of 80% methane and 20% crude oil needs independent corroboration.

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Clearly, Aiteo/NNPC must be held fully accountable under Nigerian law for their reckless corporate conduct in this incident.  Further, the federal Attorney General should explore holding Shell jointly liable for the spill, as Shell installed and operated the well, and transferred it to Aiteo in 2015.

It remains unclear whether Aiteo assumed all future liabilities when it obtained the well from Shell.  Shell should not be able to simply walk away from decades of reckless corporate behavior on the Delta and escape any further liability.

Again, the Nembe OML 29 blowout is a major spill, seriously impacting the local environment and communities, and the government and industry must respond accordingly.

The decades of oil industry abuse in the Niger Delta simply has to stop.  As I suggested in this 2016 commentary, it is time for an independent Niger Delta Restoration Commission to be established, focused on all the oil-impacted ecosystems and communities of the Niger Delta.

By Professor Rick Steiner, International Oil Spill Advisor

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