June 5, 2018

The ecological, human impacts of oil spills are highly diverse – Prof Rim-Rukeh

The ecological, human impacts of oil spills are highly diverse – Prof Rim-Rukeh

Pro. Rim-Rukeh

Despite the plans of many stakeholders, including the government and operators, oil and gas remain the dominant sources of pollution in Nigeria’s petroleum producing areas. In this interview with Udeme Akpan, Prof. Akpofure Rim-Rukeh, a professor of Environmental studies, Federal University of Petroleum Resources, Effurun, Delta state provides deep insight into issues as well as solutions.

Pro. Rim-Rukeh

What do you consider to be the major environmental issues in Nigeria’s oil and gas producing areas?

Major environmental issues arising from the oil and gas activities are many, including oil spill and continuous gas flare.

How severe are these problems, especially in terms of impact on individuals, households and the society?

The ecological and human impacts of oil spills are highly diverse and its effects are on a wide scale. Surface water bodies (rivers, streams and creeks) are major sources of drinking water in most oil producing communities, but today such water bodies are undrinkable. When oil spills occur in streams, rivers and lakes, it alters the quality of the water, thus making it unfit for human consumption. It has been speculated that, one barrel of crude oil can make one million barrels of water undrinkable.

Fishing as a traditional occupation is the peoples’ sources of income. Today, this traditional occupation is being eroded as a result of oil spills. It is estimated that up to 40per cent of the oil producing agricultural land is seriously contaminated with oil spills, making such size of land unproductive.

Have oil and gas companies put in place adequate structures and systems in place to prevent and manage their environmental problems?

The structures and systems of oil and gas companies are not adequate to prevent and manage the environmental problems arising from their activities. For example, some of their buried pipelines are as old as 50 years in which the integrity of such structures is now questionable. In addition, the response time to oil spills is far from International Standards.

Do government agencies, especially the Department of Petroleum Resources, DPR have the capacity to monitor, regulate and enforce compliance?

The issue here is lack of manpower to monitor, regulate and enforce compliance. The present staff strength is overwhelmed with enormous environmental challenges.

How have oil vandalism, oil theft and illegal refining gone in worsening the environmental challenges in Nigeria’s oil and gas producing areas?

Illegal oil bunkering is the most commonly known form of oil theft and it involves direct tapping of oil pipelines. Illegal oil bunkering is any activity relating to the theft or sabotage of crude oil, facilities or installations in form of pipeline vandalism, illegal refining, etc. Illegal oil bunkering is the act of hacking into pipelines to steal crude oil which is later refined or sold abroad. It is an illicit trade that involves the theft of crude oil and its derivative products through a variety of mechanisms.

Illegal crude oil refining is the process of procuring stolen crude oil and refining them in the so-called  bush refineries with the use of local resources and skills (drawing on the indigenous technology used to distil locally made gin – ogogoro or kaikai). The basic materials typically involves rudimentary systems – often made of metal pipes and drums welded together – in which crude oil is boiled and the resultant fumes are collected, cooled and condensed in tanks to be used locally for lighting, energy or transport.

Does the UNEP report represents the reality of the situation in Ogoniland?

UNEP report truly represents the environmental reality of the situation in Ogoniland.  In the past two decades, the entire Ogoni land has been engulfed in a crisis of instability caused by protesting oil producing communities agitating for environmental protection. The protests of vary degree of manifestation have become a frequently occurring phenomenon.  Some of the contentious issues have centred on delay in responses to spillages and outright refusal to clean spilled oil. Thus the oil communities are now pitched against the oil companies and government on one hand and against neighbouring communities on the other hand in a conflict, which not only threaten the oil industry but the corporate existence of the country.

The impact of oil spillages has been a source of worry to the Federal, State, Local Governments and the affected communities. This was partly responsible for the in the wake of the instability, oil industry operations were suspended in Ogoniland in 1993. However, environmental contamination remains. Upon a request from the Federal Government of Nigeria, UNEP undertook an independent study to determine the extent of the environmental impacts arising from oil industry operations in Ogoni land.

UNEP’s field observations and scientific investigations found that oil contamination in Ogoniland is widespread and severely impacting relevant components of the environment. The Ogoni people live with this pollution every day.

How far have government agencies and others gone in implementing the recommendations of the report?

At different fora, I have proposed the implementation strategies for the clean-up of Ogoni land in phases. Phase one, two three, four and five should include the inventorisation and categorisation study to determine status of the impacted sites; provision of emergency measures to the people, decommissioning of abandoned facilities, including artisan refineries and ancillary facilities, clean – up of crude oil contaminated land/soil and clean – up of crude oil ground water wells respectively.

Phase six, seven, eight, nine, 10 and 11 should include the clean – up of crude oil contaminated sediments, clean – up of crude oil contaminated surface water, re-vegetation and re-habilitation of identified impact – sites, restoration of wet lands, removal of invasive plant species (Nypa Palm, Water hyacinth) and monitoring of environmental restoration activities respectively.

Do you think the government, oil companies and other stakeholders are committed to the cleanup of Ogoniland?

At the on-set of the clean-up of Ogoniland, especially after flag-off ceremony, the snail speed of activities was worrisome. But today, some activities – the medical services, the call for contractors, the training of Ogoni youths – are signs of great commitment.

What problems are likely to be encountered in the process of carrying out the clean-up of Ogoniland and other parts of the Niger Delta and how can they be tackled?

I don’t envisage any challenges from the clean-up activities if the operators are transparent and open. The Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) is on the right track. I commend their efforts.