May 6, 2024

The press and environmental crisis in Niger Delta

Niger Delta


IT is probable that the export of crude oil exploited from Oil Well-1 at Oloibiri in Ogbia local government area in Bayelsa State and other onshore crude oil wells by Shell D’Arcy, later renamed Shell Petroleum Development Company Limited, SPDC, in 1958, benchmarked the environmental despoliation and pollution of the Niger Delta region. It is also likely that the environmental deterioration experienced in the region could have been mitigated if the mass media had performed its salient role of holding both the international oil companies and the governments accountable for the despoliation of the Niger Delta environment.

While the crude oil discovery by Shell Petroleum ushered in a new era of economic prosperity for both the international oil companies, IOCs, and the Nigerian government, it also unleashed doom on the ecosystems in the Niger Delta environment. Over the years, it has been more than doom, as both the government and the international oil companies have collaborated not only to neglect but also to deny inhabitants and the wetland environment of the required attention. 

With a fan-shaped area spanning some 70,000 square kilometres, the Niger Delta region forms 7.5 per cent of Nigeria’s landmass, with 186 local government areas and a population of about 25 million. Situated in the southern tip of the country, its major rivers are the Niger and Benue which unite at Lokoja in Kogi State, and flow through the Niger Delta to the Atlantic Ocean. Other rivers and creeks include Bonny, Benin, Cross, Akwa Ibom, Brass, Forcados, Nun, and other rivulets and streams. Though the core Niger Delta region has six states of Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, and Rivers; yet three other states which share contiguous environments and sizeable oil exploitation activities that generate revenues to the Federal Government: Abia, Ondo and Imo, have joined the ranks of oil and gas producing states.

Often described as Nigeria’s oil and gas zone, it is estimated that between 10 and 40 per cent of the associated or marsh gas produced in the zone is under-utilised by the international oil companies and thus flared in 144 gas flare sites. With an estimated 157 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves, its production commenced in 1957 with an initial output of about two million cubic feet, but has now risen to about two billion cubic feet. Oluwasoye Mafimisebi and Odinaka Ogbonna have explained that about 60 per cent of the natural gas is flared. Gas flaring involves the burning of natural and petroleum hydrocarbons by the oil companies during their operations, and these occur 24 hours a day. These flares have adverse impacts on inhabitants of the region as well as on their environments. The combination  of woes associated with it undermines the quality of life of inhabitants of the region and globally raises concerns relating to the environment, especially in global warming and climate change. 

It is quite clear that flaring of carbon dioxide and methane gases into the atmosphere contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer, which in turn results to acid rain and rise in sea level. These are features that are currently being experienced in the wetlands of the Niger Delta. An environmental chemist and climate expert at the University of Port Harcourt, Lebari Sibe, had earlier confirmed in an interview that continuous gas flaring has already led to the acidification of the rivers in the Niger Delta and is also affecting the food chain. According to him: “The residents are exposed to acidic water and the soil we use in agriculture is acidified. I can tell you that acidic soil does not support good soil fertility and it affects crop production, as well as the nutritional value of crops.” This is an issue that should be confronted by not only the international oil companies but also the Federal and states governments in the country.

 Also noticeable is the challenge of soot in the Niger Delta. Bubaraye Dakolo, a retired military officer and king of Ekpetiama kingdom in Bayelsa State, associates its occurrence to the destruction of illegal refineries by military task forces who claim that these distilleries rely on stolen crude oil as feed stocks to fire their refining activities. Since these task force agents lack the capacity to clean the vandalised distilleries’ environments, they pour out such crude oil on the soil and into the creeks. Some of these wasted crude oil float on the creeks, and since petroleum is lighter than water, when ignited it burns on top of the waters. These fires pollute the atmosphere, inevitably resulting in the production of soot that compromises the air quality index, AQI, of the Niger Delta. The presence of soot has been a constant feature of the region and particularly Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital in recent years.

Aside from gas flaring, there is the challenge of oil spills on the environment. It is understood that an average of 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled in the Niger Delta every year, while more than 70,000 oil spill incidents have been reported in the region over the last 50 years. Many of these spills are often attributed to unknown causes because the international oil companies do not want to admit their negligence. Best Ordinioha and Seivefa Brisibe have remarked that at least 1,500 communities have been affected by oil spills from the more than 5,284 oil wells drilled and the 7,000 kilometres of crude oil pipelines that crisscross the Niger Delta. These crude oil spills have not only reduced the quality and quantity of food crops, but also led to food insecurity in the region. It has also caused massive contamination of water sources in the region.

Given this scenario, what role can the mass media play in mitigating the damaging effects of oil and gas exploitation in the Niger Delta? One of the major functions of the mass media is to raise awareness of the people to some of the salient issues in their environments. The Niger Delta environmental despoliation is certainly one of these salient issues that should affect not only Nigerians but also the global climate change campaign. It is clear that the mass media have not dutifully carried out their responsibility of campaigning and advocating for the effective use of the Niger Delta environment. The mass media, as the fourth estate of the realm, have potential to serve as effective tools for visualising the various environmental challenges like global warming, climate change, air pollution, oil spills on the soil and water of the Niger Delta, but they appear to have ignored this responsibility.

While insisting that the mass media have not sufficiently created awareness on environmental issues in the Niger Delta, Abosede Banjo and Maria Obun-Andy are of the view that if the mass media had done so, the governments and the international oil companies would have woken up and provided the needed measures to mitigate the festering environmental hazards in the region. The way out, therefore, is for the mass media to set an agenda on environmental degradation in the region. This will lead to providing timely and relevant information through newspaper articles, radio and television campaigns and debates that will propel behaviour and attitude change on the government and international oil companies. These campaigns will also educate citizens on the gravity of the ecological challenge affecting the Niger Delta environment.

As we marked the 2024 World Press Freedom Day on May 3, it is vital that we focus on Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights which states that everyone “has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” 

The vibrant Nigerian mass media which comprises hundreds of radio and television stations, newspapers and magazines outlets, have a responsibility to drag the governments and the international oil companies out of their inertia to salvage the Niger Delta environment from further deterioration. 

The first strategy that media professionals in Nigeria should adopt to keep the Niger Delta environmental despoliation on the front burner is to direct their environment and energy desks to investigate, report or broadcast on the impact of oil spills and gas flaring on the ecosystem of the region. The mass media must also support efforts by community stakeholders to prevent further devastation of their environments by international oil companies, examine environmental impact assessment reports by the oil firms to prevent application of sections that do not ensure sustainability of their ecosystems. There is also the need for continuous monitoring of efforts to remediate environments already damaged by oil spills and gas flaring activities. Media professionals should implement these strategies not only in the interest of sustainability of the Niger Delta environment but also in the interest of reducing global warming and depletion of the ozone layer.

•Dr. Ibuot, a journalist, wrote from Lagos.