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Gas flaring scorches Niger Delta

Leonore Schick | Paul Myles | Okonta Emeka Okelum Niger Delta, Nigeria
November 14, 2018

In Nigeria's Niger Delta, gas flares are killing crops, polluting water and damaging human health. The Nigerian government has promised to tackle the problem — but new data shows flaring has even gone up.

Young Nigerian carrying item next to gas flare
Image: DW/K. Gänsler

Flames as tall as 10-storey buildings burn day and night in the village of Ebedei, in Nigeria's Niger Delta. But the heat from these fires is neither soft nor warm, it's fierce and prickly.

The constant noise sends wild animals fleeing, and people must shout to be heard over the roaring flames. Fields of crops, once green, have turned yellow or stopped growing entirely. The village no longer enjoys the respite of cool or darkness of night.

In the oil-rich Niger Delta of southern Nigeria, 2 million people live within 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) of a gas flare. Below the flames, oil is being extracted. With the oil comes gas — considered by the oil industry to be a dangerous waste product to burned off in a process called gas flaring.

And this flaring is on the rise again, despite promises to reduce it.

Map of gas flaring in the Niger Delta

'Under the shade of hazard'

Benjamin Nwaiku lives beside the constant flame of a gas flare. In 2001, he retired from his job in the oil industry in Lagos and moved back to his hometown of Ebedei, to become a farmer and raise his seven children.

But in 2009, small Nigerian operator Platform Petroleum erected a flow station adjacent to his house to extract oil.

He quickly became concerned about the possible effects on his health and that of his children. "We are living under the shade of hazard because of this flaring," Nwaiku said.

His fears have a legitimate basis. Exposure to air pollutants released by gas flaring have been linked to cancer and lung damage, as well as neurological and reproductive problems.

The flaring has also affected his livelihood. He noticed his corn crops growing strangely — shooting up, as he described it, "like an electric pole, without any fruit."

Oil company worker moving toward a gas flare in Niger Delta
Although the oil industry brings jobs, residents in the Niger Delta suffer many negative consequences from gas flaringImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The gas flaring caused a rise in soil temperature and declining crop yields for Nwaiku and other farmers. "You plant, and before you know it, everything is dead," he said. "It is a disaster."

But some of the gas flare's impact is less tangible, and can't be measured in cash. Nwaiku said he missed the "total darkness" and quiet of rural night — something the village hasn't experienced since the flame started burning.

During rainy season, the rainwater is visibly black. "It is not consumable ... no need for a microscope," Nwaiku said, inspecting the sample of water his neighbor collected.

The rainwater, he said, corroded his zinc roof. Holes appeared, and rotted the wood inside.

Gas flaring on the rise in Nigeria

Nigeria has been exporting oil for more than 60 years, and the sector accounts for more than half of the government's income.

The Niger Delta is among the world's most oil-rich regions. Since the start of crude oil exploitation there in the 1950s, thousands of oil spills have fouled the delta, and helped fuel conflict in the region.

Although gas flaring was officially banned in 1984, the government has repeatedly failed to fulfill promises to end the practice.

London-based nonprofit On Our Radar tested whether the government's most recent vow to put an end to gas flaring by 2020 were realistic. It commissioned geospatial data expert Rory Hodgson to analyze to measure hotspots from gas flares using infrared data.    

"The satellite data appears to show a marked increase in radiant heat emitted by gas flares in Nigeria starting late 2017," Hodgson said.

The NOAA satellite that collected the data began recording infrared readings in 2012. So far, 2018 has yielded the highest readings for gas flaring in Nigeria. "The data points to 2018 having more gas flares burning more intensely than has been seen for the past five years," Hodgson said.

This goes go against the global trend, which has seen gas flaring dip substantially in recent decades.

According to the World Bank's Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership rankings from July 2018, Nigeria is the sixth-largest gas-flaring country globally.

Top seven gas-flaring countries 2017

'Burning money'

At one gas processing plant — a senior executive who did not want to be named — said: "Flaring gas is burning money." Indeed, On Our Radar estimated $770 million (€678 million) of lost income for 2016 alone, based on a 2016 gas price of $2.49 per gallon.

In a country where, according to the World Bank, 27 percent of the population does not have access to electricity, residents are concerned about the waste.

Enizoka Prince, a student from the Niger Delta, believes the gas could be put to good use. "They can convert this gas to light. If there was light, there would be development as well," he said. 

Gas flaring is also a significant contributor to global warming. The United States Environmental Protection Agency's greenhouse gas calculator estimates emissions from flaring in Nigeria in 2016 were equivalent to more than 3.5 million passenger vehicles driven for one year.

But the process of capturing gas requires infrastructure, which is expensive in the short term.

The Niger Delta Avengers

Edward Obi, co-founder of the civil society group GASIN, said the Nigerian government "has not made sufficient efforts to insist that oil and gas companies put down the necessary infrastructure to capture the gas and utilize it."

Deadline looming

Nigeria has set itself a deadline to end routine flaring by 2020. But Obi does not believe this will be met.

"Nothing on the ground suggests a realistic 2020 deadline — absolutely nothing."

Still, Bjorn Hamso, program manager of the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR) at the World Bank, was more optimistic.

"Progress is being made in a number of countries, including in Nigeria," he said. "But much more needs to be done to eliminate existing routine flaring."

Read more: Gas flaring in the Niger Delta ruins lives, business

Gas flared by oil companies in the Niger Delta

Shell Nigeria is the company doing most oil extraction in the Niger Delta. It is also a member of the GGFR.

Shell Nigeria, officially named Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), told DW it was working closely with the Nigerian government to end gas flaring.

"Since 2000, all new SPDC JV facilities have been designed to eliminate continuous flaring of associated gas," a Shell spokesperson said. "In parallel, a multi-year program has been successfully implemented to install equipment for capturing associated gas from older facilities."

The Federal Ministry for Petroleum Resources in Nigeria and the National Nigerian Petroleum Corporation have not responded to requests for comment.

This investigation by On Our Radarwas funded by Code for Africa's  impactAFRICA fund.