If we really want to save Nigeria from the impending doom of climate imbalance, the damage caused by gas flaring should not be overlooked for enjoying the billions of dollars attached to petroleum.
According to the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership, Nigeria is the sixth-largest gas flaring country in the world. Satellite data from Nigeria’s environment ministry shows that about 800 million standard cubic feet of gas is flared daily in the country. This disastrous practice harms the environment, public health and the economy. Yet, it is barely attended to by regulators.
Gas flaring, which is the deliberate burning of natural gas associated with crude oil into open-air, has routinely been condemned by different countries, including Nigeria. In a bid to eliminate the practice by 2020 and possibly enhance the economic use of gas, in 2016 the government commissioned the Nigerian Gas Flare Commercialization Programme. Yet, Nigeria’s ranking among gas flaring countries remains high, largely because mining companies feel that the wasted gas has little economic value as opposed to crude oil. But at what cost? Accepting the multiple health hazards, the environmental risks and the economic loss of an estimated potential revenue of 770 million dollars yearly, no matter how little that is?
Various researchers such as Anslem O. Ajugwo, in his article titled ‘Negative Effects of Gas Flaring: The Nigerian Experience’, have established the direct negative effects of gas flaring on the environment and human health including contamination of the atmosphere and causing deformities in children. But what about the indirect risks—deforestation being a major one—which are already at play, and whose larger-scale effects are not only prevalent in the Niger Delta region?
Growing up in north-eastern Nigeria—Mubi, Adamawa state to be precise—I experienced sunshine, as well as intolerant weather conditions of heat and extreme cold, and I also saw fertile lands that produced bursting grains for commercial consumption. Fast-forward into my adulthood, I have seen a decline in land fertility and food production, and I have seen an almost unbearable continuous upsurge of heat and a decrease in cold. So, it is worth asking: in what way has gas flaring contributed to such drastic change?
About 95 per cent of Mubi’s population depends on fuel sourced from forests in the form of firewood for cooking (typically for use by bakeries, rice processing outlets, as well as eateries, bukkas and/or restaurants). This is so because the majority of the people get this fuel either for free or at a very low price, leading to hundreds of trees going down every month. Now, this happens not just in Mubi, but virtually everywhere in Nigeria. In other words, our forests are continuously pushed to the brink of extinction despite the fact that the country is blessed with an abundant gas deposit that is, however, being wasted. This fiasco is hardly ever spoken about and it got me thinking: What if the gas being wasted was refined and converted into cooking gas set at a price so low that ordinary Nigerian would only have to worry about buying a gas cylinder.
According to Shiva Makki, in the 2009 essay, ‘Deforestation: Disastrous Consequences for the Climate and for Food Security’:
Deforestation devastates biodiversity and natural habitats and degrades natural resources. In the developing world, 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their food, fuel and livelihoods. The real economic value of forests is much greater than the short-term benefits of logging or clearing land for agriculture. In the longer run, the loss of biodiversity, habitat, and natural resources will affect food production… But the most serious consequences of them all may be global warming…
Besides fuelwood collection, there are many other reasons why deforestation persists including indiscriminate logging and the desertification of land which makes land unfit to grow trees as a result of wastes released into rivers or water bodies by petrochemical industries, leading to soil erosion. All of these are critical drivers of the persistent increase in greenhouse gas emissions that create climate change. Making people less dependent on forests for fuel is an important step when trying to combat climate change in Nigeria. It would go a long way in saving our forests and restore the declining food production.
GAS FLARING—WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
The National Forest Policy which was approved by the Federal Ministry of Environment in 2006 discusses important subjects like forest resources, food security, biodiversity conservation, environmental services, forest fires, desertification control and of course fuelwood and the National Tree Planting Campaign. Furthermore, the National Forest Policy issues policy statements for the participation of communities, private parties, industries and more—policies whose ultimate objectives are aimed at ‘sustainable forest management.’ As valid as these points are, the Policy fails to address the massive harm that gas flaring does to forests in Nigeria; and more specifically how the practice contributes to deforestation and how to stop it.
Gas is a viable source of energy, and time is ripe for Nigeria to begin to see it as such to satisfy our developmental needs. This is necessary even though, according to Mark Thurber, countries with high rates of gas flaring are often characterized by ‘underdeveloped local markets for natural gas and/or payment of low prices for gas’. Thurber further argues that ‘even if a country has robust gas market overall, flaring can occur if oil fields are far from population centres and infrastructures to take associated gas isn’t available.’
If we really want to save Nigeria from the impending doom of climate imbalance, the damage caused by gas flaring should not be overlooked for enjoying the billions of dollars attached to petroleum. A start would be developing an economically viable gas market and requisite power generation infrastructure. Many rural areas in Nigeria do not have access to electricity, and most towns and cities can hardly boast of two hours of steady power supply in a day; instead of wasting gas and creating harmful pollutants in the process, it should be converted to electricity at an affordable price. Harmful pollutants (such as flared gas) are a huge detriment to the environment. For instance, when gas is flared, methane, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, is released into the air, and this contributes directly to global warming. It contaminates the atmosphere with particulate matter, carbon and sulphur, hydrocarbons and ash, nitrogen oxides and many more atmospheric contaminants so that agriculture is affected due to acidification of soil. Not only does this compromise the fertility of the land, it also damages lakes, streams, forests and vegetation. Such damage is compounded by oil spillage to the extent that the environment (land and water) become inhabitable for aquatics, reptiles, animals and humans. Furthermore, gas flaring puts human health at risk: from neurological, reproductive and developmental effects to loss of coordination, cancer, lung damage, skin problems, and deformities in children—the list is long, and a solution is paramount.
GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS: THE SOLUTION?
The best way to curb gas flaring in Nigeria is to enforce the rules and regulations that govern its practice. In 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Flare Gas (Prevention of Waste and Pollution) Regulations in his capacity as the Minister of Petroleum Resources. This regulation aims at reducing the environmental and social impact caused by the flaring of natural gas, protecting the environment, preventing waste of natural resources and creating social and economic benefits from gas flare capture. A considerably lengthy document of its own, there are two key sections otherwise worth highlighting from the Regulations in simple, non-technical words:
Section 12 (1-3) – Prohibition against Flaring and Venting of Natural Gas
The regulation prohibits producers to flare gas from any facility operated by them, except pursuant to a certificate issued by the Minister of Petroleum Resources established on the provisions of the Associated Gas Reinjection Act. The prohibition also applies to routine flaring or venting of natural gas from any facility operated by the permit holder.
Section 13 (1-2) – Payment for Gas Flaring
The Regulations set a gas flaring payment for gas flared within an Oil Mining Lease area or a Marginal Field. Where 10,000 barrels of oil is produced per day, the company shall be liable to a flare payment of $2 per 28.317 standard cubic meters of gas flared. If less than 10,000 barrels is produced per day, the company shall be liable to a flare payment of $0.5 per 28.317 standard cubic meters of gas flared. Conversely, no liability shall accrue to a producer if the flaring is caused by an act of war, community disturbance, insurrection, storm, flood, earthquake, or other natural phenomenon which is beyond the reasonable control of the producer.
These regulations—despite loopholes (including inadequate monitoring) that enable gas flaring— seem appropriate to curb the flaring of gas in the country. Yet, Nigeria is still ranked amongst the top six gas flaring countries globally. Does that mean that gas flaring prohibitions do not work? For instance, since 1984, gas flaring has been illegal in Nigeria, with a deadline which was purported to be 1 January 1984, strongly backed by the Associated Gas Reinjection Act, 1979. Thirty-six years later, a new deadline has been set to end the practice in 2020 following several failed attempts. What is happening?
Enacting regulations alone does not really create a viable solution, especially if not properly implemented. A more sustainable solution would be to develop domestic gas markets and make them attractive to quality investors.
Nigeria’s fast-growing population, rampant deforestation with all its apocalyptic consequences, and the difficulties faced by local communities under the direct and indirect menaces of gas flaring all call for an urgent end to gas flaring. Only the government can end gas flaring. If the government does not take a stand, the oil companies will not. The government needs to put forward a realistic roadmap that must be honoured, gas markets should be explored, and stringent regulations should not only be announced but also be implemented and monitored. Non-compliance should lead to exorbitant fines or even suspension of companies from active business operation. This is not anti-business; it is only a fair intervention geared towards attaining a gas-flaring-free Nigeria⎈
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