An Apocalyptic Landscape and a Desperate Situation
One description of oil exploitation in Nigeria stands out more than others: Present-day oil producers in Africa suffer from the “oil curse” or the “natural resource curse.”
Nigeria is the tenth most petroleum-rich nation in the world, and the most affluent in Africa. It boasts a total of 159 oil fields, and there are 1481 wells in operation according to the Department of Petroleum Resources. The most productive region is the coastal Niger Delta Basin that includes 78 of the 159 oil fields.
Port Harcourt, where I sailed to as a merchant marine in 1985, is the central cog in the Nigerian petroleum machine. Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron have offices in this city, and there are two main oil refineries that process over 210,000 barrels of crude oil a day, both operated by the Port Harcourt Refining Company. For more than two years there’s been an ominous dark cloud floating over the city. Residents complain that their clothes, and everything outside their homes, are covered with a layer of black soot.
Our boat was docked and barge unloaded in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
In Nigeria’s Niger Delta, pollution from gas flares is killing crops, polluting water, and damaging human health. Gas flaring is the process of burning-off natural gas released by pressure relief valves when extracting oil. Although gas flaring was officially banned in 1984, the Nigerian government has repeatedly failed to fulfill promises to end the practice. Oil companies in Nigeria flare over 313 million standard cubic feet of gas annually according to satellite data. The flared gas results in the emission of 16.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Gas flaring is a significant contributor to global warming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) greenhouse gas calculator estimated that emissions from flaring in Nigeria in 2016 were equivalent to more than 3.5 million passenger vehicles driven for one year. The process of capturing this gas requires infrastructure, however, which is expensive in the short term and an endeavor the oil companies are not eager to pursue. Ironically, a senior executive at a Nigerian processing plant stated, “Flaring gas is burning money.” It’s estimated that burning off this natural gas resulted in $770 million of lost income for 2016, based on a 2016 gas price of $2.49 per gallon. Twenty seven percent of the Nigerian population lack access to electricity, and this resource could also be used to generate electricity.
Oil refinery gates in Port Harcourt, Nigeria
The huge amount of money generated by the oil companies, and how it could enrichen the lives of Nigerian citizens, is one more example of the flawed “trickle down” theory. Oil provides roughly 87 percent of government revenues, 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings, 96 percent of export revenues, and almost half of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, despite the fact that the Nigerian government takes in more than $50 billion from oil annually, more than 90 percent of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, 70 percent live on less than $1 a day, and youth unemployment is at 40 percent.
Over the years, activists and political movements have emerged in opposition to injustices inflicted by the government and the oil companies. “Delta Fighters” expose exploitation and oppression of the people of the Niger Delta, along with devastation of the natural environment. Both of these problems are a result of public-private partnerships between the Federal Government of Nigeria and corporations involved in the production of oil in the Niger Delta. The Delta Fighters attempt to obstruct oil production in the delta region with widespread vandalism and general mayhem. In 2009, in an effort to thwart these attacks, the government enacted an amnesty program and several thousand Delta fighters exchanged weapons for cash. There was an effort to redirect oil wealth back to the communities but it eventually failed.
A wellhead near the village of K-dere, Ogoniland. Crude oil gushed unchecked from two spills devastating a network of creeks and inlets, and effecting over thirty small settlements.
Photograph: Amnesty International, UK
Politicians and former militants with access to government contracts and revenues continue to grow wealthy and powerful, while most Nigerians remain in a state of poverty. The result of this disparity is a situation where a large population of people have their backs to the wall. Farmers who once depended on agriculture for subsistence can no longer grow crops in ground that’s destroyed by oil spills, and water that is undrinkable. With no way to afford purchasing legal petroleum, a growing number are turning to illegal oil and gasoline refining deep within the surrounding jungle, and compounding the problem of widespread pollution. And of course pirating gains the most media attention out of all these challenges.
The International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center has identified Nigerian waters as being extremely dangerous. According to figures available for the first three months of 2018, Nigeria alone recorded twenty-two incidents. Of the eleven vessels fired upon worldwide, eight were off the coast of Nigeria, including a tanker more than forty nautical miles off the Niger Delta. In 2017, the IMB reported over twenty attacks on vessels in the same area.
When land, air, and water is being destroyed at an alarming rate, and sustainability is no longer possible, desperation fuels dark alternatives.
Related Links and Resources:
Nigeria: Piracy on the rise in the Gulf of Guinea
Nigerian Gas Flare Tracker
Geographic areas showing states, LGAs, oil blocks, individual flaring sites, onshore and offshore
Nigeria’s Illegal Oil Refineries
Al Jazeera English
West Africa’s gas-flaring curse