By Emma Amaize
WHEN a select team of journalists, including this reporter, opted to join, Thursday, February 9, in an over flight of clean-up sites and coast lines in the Delta by Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company, SNPEC, consequent upon the December 20, 2011 Bonga FSPO oil spill, his unspoken mission was to uncover the faults the company was hiding behind the wall and tell it as it is, no matter whose ox is gored.
But, after an almost two-hour helicopter over flight from Warri-Yokri- Forcados River-Ramos River-Dodo River- Penington and undercover investigations, it became comprehensible that the problem facing Niger-Delta at the moment is more than the claims and counter-claims of the oil communities and SNPEC over Bonga spill.
What the communities, oil companies and government should worry about is the massive oil bunkering and illegal refining of crude oil that is going on in the creek communities, which had not only led to a waste of over 4.8 million barrels of oil, estimated at $480 million, between Rivers and Bayelsa states at Nembe Creek trunk line alone, but also threatening the very life of the citizens of the region.
It was gathered while the multinational oil companies are legitimately carrying out crude oil business in the country, crude oil thieves are busy tapping into the pipelines and oil wells of the companies and siphoning crude oil into vessels, barges, locally made ships called Cotonou boats, and storage vessels, which they take to illegal refineries, tucked away in the swampy forests. They coarsely process (refine) and sell the product in the high seas to fuel dealers, within and outside the country.
Sometimes, they used hacksaws to cut trunk lines and transfer stolen products from the storage depots to sell to illegal transporters who lift the product by land tankers or large barges to be refined locally and sold at cheaper prices. The criminal act of oil theft has damaged the environment.
“What is disturbing is that they cook (read refine) this crude oil in a manner that is injurious to their health because it is an unsophisticated technology; some of them are half naked when they cook crude oil and they breathe in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other toxic materials into their systems, they don’t know the effect of what they do to their health. Nobody who does what they do the way they do it will live for more than 10 years after breathing all those things into their bodies, and because it is a crude technology that they employ, they empty what they term as waste back into the river and their environment, leading to destruction of the ecosystem”.
What really happened? Briefly, the Commander of SNPEC Emergency Response Team, Mr. Chuka Njoku, who was on duty in Bonga FSPO, December 20, 2011 when the spill occurred, told newsmen, on Thursday, that the leak happened at about 3.00 a.m. during the transfer of crude to MT Northia tanker in line three of the 15-inch Bonga oil offloading riser system (BOORS). He said the depth of release was about 400 m, approximately 255 m from Bonga FSPO, and, when it was discovered, the crew on board, immediately shut flow of crude oil and isolated export system.
According to him, as an international company that cares for the people and the environment, its first primary responsibility was to clean up the spill, which it did by deploying resources, personnel and equipment from across the world after contacting the relevant agencies, including NOSDRA, and, by the next day, it had dispersed the spilled crude with dispersants.
Trail of oil On December 24, he said a trail of oil, approximately 100 kilometers from the Bonga facility, was seen and Bonga FSPO is 120 km off shore. Njoku asserted that it was obviously from a third party vessel due to the different age, shape and color of the oil.
Information showed that despite the crackdown on illegal refineries and oil bunkerers by the Joint Task Force, JTF, codenamed Operation Pulo Shield, crude oil thieves were busy plying their trade at Dodo River and Ramos River and the vertical movement of the spill from Bonga suggested it was from that direction.
SNPEC’s Remediation Manager, Mr. Austin Igbukwu, said SPDC’s decision to clean up the oil spill caused by a third party between Escravos and Dodo River was not because it was not aware of the oil bunkering activities, but because it would cause harm to the people if not attended to.
He said the affected communities were divided into 24 cells, out of which 21 cells had been cleaned up, while three communities, Agge, Ogbeintu and Orobiri, refused the clean-up teams access to their towns on the grounds that Shell must first admit responsibility for the spill, provide relief materials and pay compensation.
Communities for which clean-ups had been completed, according to him, are Ovusemene, Ezetu, Sokebolou/Yokri, Amatu I, Azamabiri, Odimodi/Beniboye, Youtu/Okibo, Ogbtobo/Iyeye, Ekpekpe/Aghoro I, Old Forcados, among others.
Managing Director of SPDC/Chairman, Shell Companies in Nigeria, Mutiu Sunmonu also maintained that the spill on the shoreline of Western Delta was a third party affair.
In the oil industry, one of the ways to determine the source of oil is to do a finger printing. So, where is the result of the finger printing of Bonga oil, which samples had been taken by all the parties, SNEPC, Directorate of Petroleum Resources, DPR, NOSDRA, Ministry of Environment and others for laboratory test?
Corporate Media Relations Manager, SNEPC, Mr. Tony Okonedo, said the results were being awaited. He said the different government agencies, including communities collected samples for laboratory test and because of the need for the results from the different places to come in and be put side by side, a little more time is needed.
Sunmonu also said, “Samples of oil collected during joint inspection visits concluded at the shoreline have been sent to American and British laboratories and to NOSDRA for fingerprinting in order to establish the source. We are still awaiting the final results, and we urge all parties to wait for the outcome of these investigations”.
There was, however, indication that SNPEC has taken delivery of the sample it sent for test in the United Kingdom and was awaiting that of United Kingdom. There is no word yet from NOSDRA and others on the outcome of their tests.
During the over flight, Sunday Vanguard saw many illegal refineries, about 6,000, that were burnt by the JTF, but expectation of catching the oil thieves in operation did not materialize. Okonedo said it was usually a night operation and seeing them in action is like hoping to catch armed robbers in operation, which is not a very easy assignment, as the oil bunkerers were no fools.
He said the occasions SNPEC officials had run into them were accidental and they were ready to attack or maim anybody that attempted to apprehend them.
Shell cries out On Monday, Shell raised the alarm over repeated damage to a key pipeline in southern Nigeria by what it said were thieves seeking to siphon off crude for sale in the lucrative black market.
The Anglo-Dutch oil giant said the Nembe Creek Trunkline had been hit by an increased number of attacks by thieves “barely 16 months after the old line was replaced due to repeated sabotage attacks.”
While highly organised crude theft — locally called “bunkering” — has long been a major problem in Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, authorities have warned that the practice has been on the rise.
It involves thieves tapping pipelines to siphon off oil either to be sold as crude or to be treated at makeshift refineries. The oil is often directed toward waiting vessels.
“On the 24th of December last year, the line was shut down because of leaks caused by two failed bunkering points, and since repairs were completed, more than 50 theft valves have been discovered,” a Shell statement said.
“In one case, some 17 illegal bunkering points were found within a distance of 3.8 kilometres.”
Sunmonu, head of Shell’s Nigerian joint venture SPDC, said, in the statement, that “the level of crude theft at NCTL can no longer be tolerated.”
“It is difficult to sustain production in the circumstance as we have to shut down when a facility trips and fix the cause before restarting,” he said. “This happened three times just between the 26th and 30th of January.”
Shell resumed production on the line January 23 after repairs due to the December incident, which led it to declare “force majeure,” a legal term indicating it may not meet contractual obligations due to events beyond its control.
The line’s current daily output is 140,000 barrels per day.
Shell said the vast majority of oil spills in recent years in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, badly hit by years of pollution, have been caused by sabotage, theft and illegal refining.
However, activists say Shell has not done enough to prevent such spills, and a UN report issued, last year, took Shell’s Nigerian joint venture to task over oil pollution.
The report said Shell’s procedures for control and maintenance of infrastructure had not been followed and spills had also not been sufficiently cleaned.