Environmental damage arising from oil operations in Niger Delta of Nigeria
Oil operations and their impact on environment remains a contentious issue in the relationship between oil communities, oil companies and governments in Developing countries, and less so in advanced economies with oil resources and vibrant civil societies. In Nigeria, the global debate on the environment and sustainability resonates with its citizens, and since post-2000 crystallized Niger Delta politics around local oil-related environmental damage as a conflict issue in itself and by itself. In this paper, I examine and elaborate on the role of government, transnational oil companies and local oil theft in environmental degradation, and steps down analysis from the larger debate into the specific impact focusing on the nature of gas flaring, oil spills and pipeline network/sabotage. Drawing from eclectic data gathering method – local documentation, participatory observation and elite interviewing technique –, ample empirical evidences suggest that beside other human actions in this region, the effect of oil operations has substantial consequences on populations and ecology. This paper concludes that, though oil holds out a vision of development, leaves detrimental effect on the Niger Delta environment. In this context, policy shift from fossil-based energy system to the uptake of renewable energy technologies is inevitably a sine qua non.
Environment-related problems in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria have attracted growing but limited research to establish both the degree of degradation accurately, and responsibility for it from either oil activities or other known means. Determining the degree and or causes of environmental damage, which are difficult to establish involves technical details beyond the ordinary competence of the victims in Niger Delta to configure. The communities living next to oil operations lack the skills and resources to embark on the complex venture of investigating environmental issues that became more topical since the 1990s. This situation becomes more frustrating for these communities for a variety of reasons. First, international expertise may not be at the communities’ disposal; second, sometimes oil companies and national support responses may not be timely or in connance with best international business practice; third and lastly, a lack of political will often associated with developing economies (Khan, 1994).
Instructively, the lack of interest or studied indifference by parties who are apparently scientifically equipped, like oil companies to know more, and have the resources to intervene but are perceived as major perpetrators heighten frustrations in affected communities. Thus the Niger Delta communities point accusing fingers at the perceived complicity of government through NNPC for not being on the side of the citizens, as well as oil companies’ lack- lustre approach to sustainable environmental practice. In this context, the Niger Delta scenario has become a challenge, especially relating to climate change, and the debate to tackle this phenomenon by ditching fossil fuels for renewable energy technologies.
Oil and gas are Nigeria’s strategic minerals. Based on “official government estimates the oil sector accounts for 70-80 per cent of the Federal Government’s revenue (depending on the oil price), around 90 per cent of export earnings, and about 25 per cent of GDP measured at constant basic prices” (Takon, 2014, pp. 587-588). On the international level, Nigeria is among the world’s top 10 oil exporters, and Niger Delta generates a substantial amount of the nation’s production capacity, and houses a significant proportion of the country’s oil infrastructure (Alagoa, 1999).
The Niger Delta is important to Nigeria’s oil-centric economy and inevitably elicits world attention because of the global importance of oil and its centrality to the global economy. This is demonstrated, first, by oil’s high energy content based on available technology; second, the relative cheapness of oil in terms of average production cost vis-à-vis other researched sources of energy; and third and no less important, the apparent ease of transportation of the product internally and externally (Klare, 2001). Klare’s work captures the significance of oil as the only energy source that is in intensive use in every modern economy. In this context, Nigeria’s huge offshore and onshore crude oil deposits in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria established the country as an important petroleum prospective zone since traditional basins are witnessing decline and renewable energy sources are not keeping pace with rising global consumption, particularly in China, India, and the United States (Roberts, 2004).
The Niger Delta is washed by the Gulf of Guinea, and hence, the region is part of the South Atlantic waters, which adjoins the Gulf of Guinea countries, namely: Angola, Cameroun, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Sao Tome/ and Principe (See: Figure 1.1). This region’s location in the Gulf of Guinea means that it shares the collective attention the region attracts to itself because of the contribution it is poised to make to the global oil supply in the coming decades (Traub-Merz and Yates, 2003). This is despite the recent rise of interest in Shale gas in the United Kingdom and United States, key importers of Nigeria’s crude, the cornerstone of the Gulf of Guinea’s oil wealth, accounting for 60% of it.
That said, beyond the Gulf’s geographical and historical meaning, Niger Delta’s importance lies in the fact that it houses significant oil infrastructure in Nigeria due to the exploration and production of on-shore and deep-water oil resources. The latter are adjacent to its continental shelf and have the potential to produce conflict over the Exclusive Economic Zone close to its maritime borders (Takon, 2014, p.40). However, both state and non-state violence and conflict were frequent and posed a significant threat to Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy before the emergence of Goodluck Jonathan, an Ijawman as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Herbst, 1996; Herbst, 2000).