The Federal Government has drafted a new Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), which is currently before the National Assembly, to tackle all facets of the Nigerian oil and gas industry’s challenges, including gas flaring.
But in an interview with CHARLES OKONJI, the Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Mr. Nnimmo Bassey, takes a different view, advocating for stoppage of gas exploration to salvage the Niger Delta environment.
How would you assess the Federal Government’s efforts to arrest the gas flaring in the Niger Delta?
The efforts to stop gas flaring have been half-hearted over the years resulting in incessant postponement of flare-out deadlines. This has happened because of the resource corruption in the sector and on account of the dysfunctional framework under which the sector has functioned over the years.
The relationship finds the polluters snugly in bed with the government and both get complacent over the attacks on the people and the environment through the obnoxious act of gas flaring.
The first major effort to end gas flaring was the enactment of the Gas Reinjection Act that effectively outlawed the activity from 1984. The Act however allowed a loophole that industry players have continued to exploit. That loophole is the allowance for routine flaring on obtaining a permit from the Minister in charge of the sector and payment of a fine.
The companies hardly bother to obtain the permit and secondly the fines payable for breaching the law are so minuscule that there has been no incentive to halt the practice. Moreover, the offending oil companies do not pay the gas flare fines from their pocket but rather account for it as part of the production costs shared with the Nigerian State.
Gas flaring could also have been halted if the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Act of 1992 was enforced objectively and strictly.
What we have seen has been the case where EIAs are conducted merely to meet regulatory requirements – as one of those documents people submit in order to get their plans approved. They are often not site-specific, but cut-and-paste sort of reports and then there are no real stakeholders involvement in the processes.
More recently there has been some focus on using some of the flared gas in power generation. The impact of this in reducing gas flaring has not been as much as it should be because the operators still depend mostly on non-associated gas. This means that gas used in power generation do not come from gas that was previously flared. Another reprehensible fact related to this is that Nigeria is registering some of these gas-to-power projects as Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
They would obtain carbon credits for the projects for using otherwise flared gas in their installations. What is unacceptable about this is not the fact that gas is used in power generation. It is that gas flaring remains illegal in Nigeria and stopping or reducing a crime should not attract any credit. They are simply doing what they ought to have done and there are no additional actions here.
The new PIB is currently before the National Assembly. What are your views on its provision for gas development and gas flaring?
Article 201(1) of the PIB as drafted by the Executive arm of the government more or less restates the provisions that have for so long permitted the anti-human act to persist. It states, “The lessee shall pay such gas flaring penalties as the Minister may determine from time to time.” This is outrageous and unacceptable! This provision shows the hand of the government but the voice is that of the offending oil companies.
In fact, a copy of the draft PIB produced by the committee set up by the Minister of Petroleum actually stated that the penalty should be the market value of the flared gas. This provision requiring that gas flare fine be the value of gas flared is included in Section 277(3) of the Executive PIB in direct contradiction with Section 201(1) where the Minister is the one to fix the fine.
The National Assembly will have to ensure that the sections say the same thing. Our recommendation is that the provisions of Section 277(3) should be utilized in correcting Section 201(1).
Making the fine for gas flaring the same as the value of the flared gas will be a huge incentive for those who indulge in this practice to decide if they want their money to go up in smoke or whether they would choose to be reasonable, halt the act and save the people and the environment.
The aborted Gas Flaring Bill that the Senate passed in 2010 but which did not find equal action in the House of Representatives has provisions requiring that offenders pay the market value of gas flared.
We should mention here that citizens are not precluded from submitting different versions of the PIB to the National Assembly. But such should bear the imprint of the drafters or senders and they should not be presented as though they are from the Executive. The Executive Bill should not be seen as the final word. It does not even have to be seen as the baseline for independent efforts. Citizens and legislators who have good ideas as to what the PIB should be should be encouraged to make their own submissions. The National Assembly should be happy to harmonize different versions of PIBs they may receive.
As an environmental expert, do you think the PIB, if passed into law, will be able to tackle the gas flaring in the country?
With the “exception” provision in the Gas Flaring Plan and the Prohibition of Flaring sections of the Executive PIB, the space is provided for continuous gas flaring. This version of the PIB will certainly not tackle the menace and wastes of gas flaring.
Interestingly section 277(2) states “The Minister may grant a permit of not more than one hundred days, or such longer period as may be approved by the Minister, to flare or vent gas in cases of start-up, equipment failure, shut down, safety flaring or due to inability of Gas customer to off-take-Gas.” The next section stipulates that “Any licensee or lessee who flares or vents gas without the permission of the Minister in the circumstances mentioned in subsection (2)(b) of this section shall be liable to pay a fine which shall not be less than the value of the gas flared.”
Note that Section 277(3) states that the penalty kicks in only where the flarer does not have a permit. The NASS will have to make it clear that even with the permit the any one engaging in gas flaring would still have to pay the fine. To allow this section and similar (281(i), etc) to stay as bogus as it is would simply mean that all the oil companies have to do is to collect a permit and then fry the sky without any restraint!
Section 275 states “Natural gas shall not be flared or vented after a date (‘the flare-out date’) to be prescribed by the Minister in regulations made pursuant to this Part, in any oil and gas production operation, block or field, onshore or offshore, or gas facility such as, processing or treatment plant, with the exception of permits granted under subsection (1) of section 277 of this Act.”
The section places the determination of a flare out date on the Minister. This is clearly unacceptable. The PIB generally deposits too much power in the Minister irrespective of how nice the he or she may personally be. Granting the Minister the power to set the deadline for ending gas flaring at his/her pleasure is equal to giving such a minister the power to permit the flouting of the human and environmental rights of the people in particular and of the entire planet in general. Gas flaring is an assault on the planet. It is a major single source of greenhouse gases in Nigeria and makes nonsense of any efforts made here to tackle global warming.
The Federal Government has said that the rate of gas flaring has decline. How would you explain this position?
This is not unexpected. More of the gas that were flared in the past are now being utilized in power generation. But it is generally more helpful to speak of less volumes being flared and not just rates. When more gas is being produced the rates would naturally appear to have dropped even when the actual volume being flared may have increased.
Gas is money for some countries and the experience of Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG), which has earned a lot of revenue for Nigeria, is a case in point. How do you think Nigeria can have a holistic approach to gas development and utilisation to be able to boost the country’s economy?
Gas, like oil and coal is non-renewable and therefore a resource that depletes with production. The corruption related to the NLNG, both in terms of the bribery and massive environmental pollution, does not indicate that we have a positive balance sheet. Our accounting books continue to exclude environmental and social costs, which are simply externalized and heaped on poor local communities. My take is that Nigeria should urgently embark on a holistic shift from these attractive but destructive resource sources. Gas exploitation is not sustainable. Oil and gas have taken the world down the path of a civilization that has now entered its twilight.
The global crises are symptoms of bigger and more vicious conflicts and storms to come. We stand a chance of building a solid economic base for the present and for the future mainly hooked on a healthy respect for Mother Earth and the rights of our peoples to a safe environment. After fifty four years of rapacious exploitation Nigeria should be the last country to be told that this is the moment to have rethink.
How do you think the PIB can help to address the menace of gas flaring in the country?
The PIB should clearly set a deadline for ending gas flaring in Nigeria. A generous deadline of 31 December 2012 is tolerable. After that flaring with or without permit should be seen for what it is: a crime against humanity and against the planet. If people are made to face justice for war crimes, those who flare gas should definitely be held accountable for ecocide – or mass assault on the environment.
If the current Executive PIB is allowed to sail as submitted we are going to enthrone business as usual and companies would not even pay any fine once they wave a permit from an almighty Minister.