N/Delta environment degradation: When oil theft, illegal bunkering take centre stage

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By Judith Ufford
WHEN we track the thieves, we arrest them and destroy the stolen products. We destroy, we destroy,” that was the refrain from Major General Bata Debiro, Commander, Operation Pulo Shield as he describes the operation of the agency against  oil thieves and other illegal bunkering criminals in the Niger Delta creeks.

The silence in the Jasmine Hall, Eko Hotel and Suites, venue of the recently concluded conference on oil theft and illegal bunkering as the Major General spoke was more of disapproval than indifference. “There has to be a better way of getting this job done without hurting the environment further,” a participant whispered to no one in particular.  This reporter heard and nodded in agreement.

It was obvious from the Major General’s tone and language that the problem at hand needed a different approach. This was the position of Dr. Ade Abolurin, Commandant General, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps,NSCDC, but not before he made the hapless state of NSCDC public.

One of the illegal refinery site scuttled by operatives of JTF

One of the illegal refinery site scuttled by operatives of JTF

“We are helpless, handicapped and ill-equipped. Other stakeholders look down at the Corps as if we are not supposed to be there. We arrest trucks but our personnel are imprisoned and beaten. We are suffering in the hands of fellow stakeholders simply because we want to protect the people, “ he said.

Oil theft, he disclosed, is in the hands of a cartel. “It has been internationalised, it is no longer local because they have international contacts”. As he made his final summation, Dr. Abolurin noted that the problem of oil theft does not need military approach. He got a good applause for that remark. No, he wasn’t playing to the gallery. The audience saw enough from the Operation Pulo Shield documentary to know that there was urgent need to tackle the issue of oil theft in a more sustainable manner given the already devastated state of the Niger Delta environment.

Speaking earlier in an address of welcome, Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and Chairman, Presidential Amnesty Programme, Kingsley Kuku noted thus: “While several estimates have been made regarding the cost to the national economy in lost revenue and pipeline repair, no one has calculated the cost to the environment and the livelihood of the people of the Niger Delta. No one has calculated the cost of restoring the environment; but extrapolating from the cost of aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP Gulf Coast spill of 2010, the cost to the Niger Delta will amount to more than one trillion dollars”.

Kuku found a ready ally in Mr. Nnimmo Bassey, an environmentalist, who hazarded a 30-year clean up plan in Ogoni land alone, adding that “the money from oil cannot restore the environment”.  Bassey was of the view that given the present state of degradation of the Niger Delta region, no oil company should go offshore if they have not cleaned up onshore. According to him, it was important that the quantity of oil being stolen is known because “it’s no rocket science to meter the quantity of oil been produced”. In his summation, oil theft is from three angles: from collusion, agencies and illegal refineries.

International involvement

But transnational companies would swear they have nothing to do with it.  In an April 2013  report by Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the company stated: ”Rising incidences of oil theft in Nigeria’s oil producing Niger Delta come at a significant environmental cost”.

In its sustainability report, the Anglo-Dutch oil major said its Nigerian unit, Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, experienced 137 spills as a result of sabotage and theft last year, with the volume of oil lost amounting to 3.3 thousand tons.

“This was an increase in both volume and numbers from 2011, as the scale of oil theft in Nigeria reached unprecedented levels,” it stated in the report.

In an open letter published in the report, SPDC’s Managing Director, Mutiu Sunmonu, said the problem of oil theft in the Niger Delta has reached “unprecedented levels” and puts enormous strain on the company’s staff as well as costing the country billions of dollars a year in lost revenue.

He added that the Nigerian government puts the volume of oil stolen significantly above the 150,000 barrel a day estimate given by the United Nations in 2009.

“It may never be possible to assess the exact figures, but it’s clear that a well financed and highly organised criminal enterprise exists on a phenomenal scale…most of the stolen oil ends up in ocean-going tankers that transport it to refineries in other parts of West Africa, Europe and beyond,” Mr. Sunmonu said.

Cummulative annual spill

“We urgently need more assistance from the Nigerian government and its security forces, other governments and other organisations,” Mr. Sunmonu said.                                                                      Whether they accept culpability or not the fact of the case is that a conservative waste/leakage/spill rate of 10% which amounts to a crude oil spill rate of 40,000 barrels per day, amounting to a cumulative annual spill volume of about 14.4 million barrels of crude oil spilt into the Niger Delta environment as a result of the crude oil theft enterprise has left the region more devastated than ever before.

This accounts for community leaders screaming themselves hoarse, demanding a more proactive approach to dealing with the problem. The devastation has left many Niger Delta communities further impoverished since their means of livelihood (fishing and farming) have been ruined by constant spills, leakages and actions of various security operatives.

It was against this backdrop that the conference decided that pipeline be encased in a minimum depth to protect them against vandalism; establish joint mini-refineries to absorb illegal refineries and engage local communities as well as fund the immediate clean up of the Niger Delta.

Conference also decided that security agencies have a role to play. The agencies were enjoined to enhance security sector collaboration with community participation, enhance intelligence gathering system with advance electronic and community input, stop the un systematic destruction of illegal oil theft facilities which compounds environmental damage.

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