Monday, 18 January 2016

Poison Fire

It’s a disgrace. The Niger Delta is an environmental disaster zone. And the social problems have only got worse. This ground breaking film leaves you under no illusion that corporations like Shell have nothing short of the complete subjugation of humanity in their sights, such is their belligerence and lack of regard for human rights and environmental sustainability. As you watch it, your blood will gradually boil, itself with a poison fire of outrage at the injustice. So here we find ourselves, 20 years after the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a cut & dried black & white tragedy of unforgivable proportions. And still no-one gives a dam.  After fifty years of oil exploitation, one and a half million tons of crude oil has been spilled into the creeks, farms and forests, the equivalent to 50 Exxon Valdez disasters, one per year.

NASA Satellite image: Niger Delta

It is a well acknowledged permaculture principle that at the margins, life proliferates. Deltas are natural interfaces between the water world and the land; an upwelling of nutrients and habitat which should be the fertile mother of life and agriculture. The effects of oil in the fragile Niger Delta communities and environment have been enormous. Local indigenous people have seen little if any improvement in their standard of living while suffering serious damage to their natural environment. According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 oil spills between 1970 and 2000.

Nigeria, after nearly four decades of oil production, had by the early 1980s become almost completely dependent on petroleum extraction economically, generating 25% of its GDPC (this has since risen to 60% as of 2008). Vast wealth created by petroleum has fed only the corrupt plutocracy. The majority of the population since the 1960s have increasingly been forced to abandon their traditional agricultural practices. Annual production of both cash and food crops dropped significantly in the latter decades of 20th century. Cocoa production dropped by 43% (Nigeria was the world's largest cocoa exporter in 1960), rubber dropped by 29%, cotton by 65%, and groundnuts by 64%. In spite of the large number of skilled, well-paid Nigerians who have been employed by the oil corporations, the majority of Nigerians and most especially the people of the Niger Delta states and the far north have become poorer since the 1960s.

Click the image to see the documentary

Poison Fire follows a team of local activists as they gather video testimonies from communities on the impact of oils spills and gas flaring. We see creeks full of crude oil, devastated mangrove forests, wellheads that has been leaking gas and oil for months. We meet people whose survival is acutely threatened by the loss of farmland, fishing and drinking water and the health hazards of gas flaring.

Gas flaring is the burning of natural gas that is associated with crude oil when it is pumped up from the ground. In petroleum-producing areas where insufficient investment was made in infrastructure to utilize natural gas, flaring is employed to dispose of this toxic gas. Nigeria flares 17.2 billion m3 of natural gas per year in conjunction with the exploration of crude oil in the Niger Delta. This high level of gas flaring is equal to approximately one quarter of the current power consumption of the African continent.

But why is natural gas (called “associated gas”, or AG) is being flared in the first place? Because oil and natural gas are mixed in every oil deposit, the natural gas must be removed from oil before refining as the gaseous fraction is unnecessary and combustible during fractionation. Gas flaring is simply the burning of unwanted AG. Because oil is 30 times more valuable than natural gas. So rather than capture it and take it to market, it is destroyed; hardly an efficient way to treat precious natural resources. Gas flaring is currently illegal in most countries of the world, where gas flaring may only occur in certain circumstances such as emergency shutdowns, non-planned maintenance, or disruption to the processing system.

Oil exploration causes a range of environmental problems. Gas flaring contributes significantly to climate change; acid rain; local ruination of agriculture; economic loss and pollution. This includes contamination of both surface and ground water by benzene, xylene, toluene, and ethylbenzene; contamination of soil by oil spill and leaks; increased deforestation; as well as the economic loss and environmental degradation stemming from gas flaring. Flaring releases methane, a greenhouse gas that, when released directly into the air, traps heat in the atmosphere. The process of flaring contributes directly to global warming.

But it is the health effects of this Poison Fire which are most disturbing. Flaring has a substantial impact on the health and environment of landowners who live near a flared well. The methane release is smelly, noisy, and, according to the US Natural Institute of Health, exposure causes “headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of coordination” in people and animals. It creates a 24×7 bright light, blocking out the night sky. Residents living near gas flares complain of respiratory problems, skin rashes and eye irritations. Since flaring involves carbon dioxide and sulphur outputs, in the longer term the heart and lungs can be affected leading to bronchitis, silicosis, sulphur poisoning of the blood, and cardiac complications. Port Harcourt doctor, Nabbs Imegwu asserts “Extreme long-term exposure can predispose one to, or cause, skin cancer.”

Pollutants from gas flaring are associated with a variety of adverse health impacts, including cancer, neurological, reproductive and developmental effects. Deformities in children, lung damage and skin problems have also been reported. Hydrocarbon compounds are known to cause some adverse changes in hematological parameters. These changes affect blood and blood-forming cells negatively. And could give rise to anemia (aplastic), pancytopenia and leukemia.

November 10 last year marked 20 years to the day since the hanging of the writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the Ogoni people’s rights movement, known as MOSOP. Convicted on faked charges by a military tribunal of “inciting the murder of four Ogoni elders”, the Ogoni Nine as they became known, were hanged in the face of international outrage. According to one report Saro-Wiwa’s own execution was bungled and only succeeded at the fifth attempt. “Why are you people treating me like this? Which type of country is this?” he is reported to have asked his executioners.

The executions, described by Nelson Mandela as “a heinous act”, led to Nigeria’s three-year suspension from the Commonwealth days later, and to economic sanctions from the EU and the USA.

In 2011 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report that confirmed scientifically what people in Ogoniland already knew: that the environment was unproductive and unsafe for human habitation. UNEP concluded that restoring the Ogoni environment could take 30 years in the most challenging environmental remediation exercise ever attempted. The UNEP report recommended that $1 billion should be allocated to set up an environmental restoration fund and begin the clean up. But in the five years since the report was published Shell and the Nigerian government have failed to implement its recommendations. 

Nice one, Shell

While a report by Shell also says overall from 2002 to 2010 “flaring from SPDC facilities has fallen by over 50 percent,” it says this was partially due to a decrease in oil extraction owing to what they call “militant activities.” In the same manner, it recognized that the 2010 increase in flaring from 2009 was because oil extraction rose following a drop in violence in the region. 

The Nigerian government has not enforced environmental regulations effectively because they have deliberately created a bureaucratic quagmire to match that of the oil fields themselves. They are in fact crudely opaque. Neither the Nigerian Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA) nor the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) has implemented anti-flaring policies for natural gas waste from oil production, nor have they monitored the emissions to ensure compliance. FEPA has had the authority to issue standards for water, air and land pollution and has had the authority to make regulations for oil industry. However, in some cases their regulations conflict with DPR regulations started in 1991 for oil exploration. So their hands are tied by an innocent accident of bureaucracy. Tied tightly, as the noose around a protester’s neck.

As the documentary demonstrates, the oil-producing communities have experienced severe marginalization and neglect. The environment and human health have frequently been a secondary consideration for oil companies and the Nigerian government. The government’s main interest in the oil industry is to maximize monetary profits from oil production. Oil companies find it more economically expedient to flare the natural gas and pay the insignificant fine than to re-inject the gas back into the oil wells. Additionally, because there is an insufficient energy market especially in rural areas, oil companies do not see an economic incentive to collect the gas.

Below is the first of many One Man Photoshop Protests which I will blog in future months. It is based on an Alan Hardman cartoon along similar lines, so I can’t take all the credit for the idea. I think I originally saw the Hardman cartoon in a book by Martin Cock and Bill Hopwood called Global Warning: Socialism And The Environment, in which I get a nod in the acknowledgements for providing some early material. Not for my skills as a cartoonist. 

One Man Photoshop Protest

Bit dated now, but well worth a read.

UPDATE: I managed to find Hardman’s cartoon online. It’s better than mine by far. First of all; it was his idea! Secondly, the image has nine victims, which is more accurate. Thirdly, it didn't take Alan Hardman 20 years to comment on the horrors of the Niger Delta. 

Ken Saro-Wiwa, left. Alan Hardman cartoon, right. 


North Utsire

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