ONE of the most intractable environmental challenges confronting Nigeria is the oil pollution through incessant spillages arising from oil exploration in the country.

This has attracted a lot of negative attention of the world leading to the establishment of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, through an Act of the National Assembly enacted on October 18, 2006. This was a deliberate and articulate response to the persistent environmental degradation and devastation of the coastal ecosystem, especially in the oil-producing areas of the Niger-Delta region.

It can be said that the Agency is charged with the responsibility of implementing the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan, NOSCP, which is an international obligation derivable from the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Cooperation, OPRC, 1990 to which Nigeria is a signatory.

The Convention places various obligations on signatories, including, under Article 3, the preparation of National Oil Pollution Contingency Plans. The Director General of NOSDRA, Sir Peter Idabor, said the agency is “statutorily empowered to co-ordinate oil spill management and ensures the implementation of the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan”.

This is the local version of international Oil Spill Contingency Plan. Put differently: “NOSCP is a blueprint for oil spill management through containment, recovery and remediation/restoration”. Currently, NOSDRA plays significant roles as the Designated National Authority in the Global Initiative for West, Central and Southern Africa, GI-WACAF, which is responsible for oil spill management in the sub-Sahara region of Africa.

NOSDRA is the custodian of the National Environmental Sensitivity Index, ESI, map covering the entire coast line and 100 km north of the coast line. This assists in the protection of people and the environment in an event of an oil spill.

Section 6(1) (a) of the NOSDRA Act empowers the Agency to carry out surveillance on oil exploration and to ensure compliance with all existing environmental legislation, especially in areas of detection of oil spills in the petroleum sector. NODSRA has been an agency created to police the oil companies and uphold environmental integrity of Nigeria, but the agency has been hampered by lack of fund. It has also been held back from effectively pursuing its mandate as oil companies continue to act with impunity.

There has been intra and inter-ministerial squabbles over the existence of NOSDRA; the Ministry of Petroleum Resources has been fighting to eclipse NOSDRA. Before the creation of NOSDRA, the Oil and Gas Pollution Control Unit of the Department of Petroleum Resources, DPR, in the Ministry of Petroleum Resources combined this environmental responsibility with its primary functions.

However, former President Olusegun Obasanjo in August, 2000 directed that “on the issue of oil spill, the overall responsibility for oil spill pollution control and clean-up lies with the Ministry of Environment.

My earlier directive to transfer the Oil and Gas Pollution Control Unit of the Department of Petroleum Resources, DPR, to the Ministry of Environment was part of strategy of Government to remove any overlap in functions and to strengthen the Ministry to enable it perform this responsibility”. DPR complied with the directive in year 2000.

However, due to salary disparity, the officers of DPR retreated to their former organisation. Similarly, the recently released United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, Environmental Assessment Report of Ogoniland commented on the overlap in the responsibilities of NOSDRA and DPR and recommended, amongst others, the transfer of oversight of the EGASPIN legislation from DPR to the Federal Ministry of Environment (NOSDRA), with the concurrent transfer of staff or by recruiting and training new staff.  The Federal Ministry has been claiming that there are overlapping functions between NOSDRA and National Institute for Maritime Safety, NIMASA, an agency that monitors oil spillage from ocean going vessels.

It is instructive to observe that the United States had to copy the Nigerian example of NOSDRA after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the United States of America when it came to light that the US Offshore Energy & Minerals Management Office, under the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, were not fully watchful of the oil companies and even at that had become negligent because of what President Barack Obama called a “cosy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency which  permitted oil companies to drill without monitoring”.  Consequently, a new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, under the US Department of the Interior (the American equivalent of NOSDRA), was created. This has been an independent agency which is different from the Department of Energy Resources or DPR in the Nigerian context.

Therefore, the recommendations of the panel, if accepted will draw the nation back in her efforts to sustainably manage the environment in the oil and gas sector. If anything, one must state that NOSDRA should be strengthened to perform the arduous task of policing the petroleum sector in terms of environmental management. Nigeria has one of the most contentious oil exploration regions in the world arising from many years of neglect of the developmental aspirations of the region, the degradation of the environment and corruption in the polity.

Apart from acts of insurgency in the oil- bearing regions of the country, there are other potential and perceived threats to the oil and gas sector, notably the breaking of oil and gas pipelines by vandals to steal crude or refined products, piracy and illegal oil Bunkering, attacks on vessels conveying oil to the international market.

Nigeria’s Exclusive Economic Zone, EEZ, is threatened by sea pirates along the Gulf of Guinea as well as the coastal zones. The internal water ways are also riddled with the activities of Nigerians and foreign nationals that want access to our national maritime and oil resources or hinder our international trade. We have seen incidents of kidnapping of personnel of oil companies and oil service companies contractors and other service providers in the sector. There are series of social discontents and disputes between the oil companies and their host communities which have implications for physical and national security in general.

We cannot be unmindful of the fact that oil exploration activities have other serious implications for the environment which can become a victim of eco-terrorism which could arise from misuse of chemicals and toxic substances, residue of materials with radio-active capabilities or corrosive dispersant which could be discharged into the sea or the environment of the host communities.

The social and economic consequences of such actions can be best imagined. It is, therefore, clear that oil exploration has serious national security implications.

Mr. HUGO ODIOGOR, a journalist, wrote from Lagos

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