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Houston Chronicle: Shell Shuts Down Nigerian Oil Facility

Feb. 17, 2006, 1:58AM
© 2006 The Associated Press
LAGOS, Nigeria — Royal Dutch Shell shut down an oil facility pumping 37,800 barrels of crude daily in Nigeria's southern oil-rich delta, following a blaze at a nearby oil well, the company said.
The cause of the fire was unknown and is being investigated, company spokesman Don Boham said in a statement late Thursday. “We have informed the relevant government agencies of the incident,” Boham said.
Tension has been running high in Nigeria's volatile oil region since a new militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, launched a string of attacks on oil company operations in January and seized four foreign oil workers who were freed after 19 days in captivity.
The group claims to be fighting for local control of oil wealth by inhabitants of the impoverished delta, who accuse joint ventures operated by the Nigerian state and Western oil companies of cheating them out of the wealth pumped from their backyards.
Nigeria, with daily exports of 2.5 million barrels, is Africa's leading oil producer. It is also the fifth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports.
Related Archive Article
Dec. 17, 2004, 2:35PM
Oil's legacy in Niger Delta may be pollution, anger
Locals fault spills and burning gas for ruining their land and livelihoods
(Last in a four-part series)
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
PORT HARCOURT, NIGERIA – The smoke — thick, black, menacing — shot like a shaking fist into a hazy blue sky.
Another oil spill. Another fire. Another day in the Niger Delta.
Coming amid a general strike and fears of rebel attacks in Nigeria's oil fields, the spill and pipeline fire Oct. 11 near the town of Mogho, about 30 miles southeast of Port Harcourt, the delta's oil center, gained international notice and contributed to a brief bump in world oil prices.
Other than that, the incident was notable only for its normality.
Environmental crises have defined the delta for decades. After nearly half a century of producing oil, the region is dissected by pipelines, peppered with pumping stations and blazing with hundreds of natural gas flares.
The extent to which oil production damages the environment remains debated by activists, academics, politicians and oil executives. But the perception among the 14 million residents of the delta is what matters. They blame the spills and flares for ruined crops, depleted fishing grounds, lessened lives.
Fury at the contamination kindled sometimes-violent civic resistance 15 years ago to the foreign oil companies that operate here. A leader of that movement, writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, gained worldwide attention in 1995 when he and eight other activists were hanged by a military government on murder charges widely believed to have been fabricated.
Pollution stokes the delta's anger still.
“If this happened in the North Sea, would they treat us like this?” said George Akbagra, 82, who once sailed those oil-rich waters as a merchant seaman.
Akbagra, now the village chief of Biseni, 50 miles west of Port Harcourt, stood ankle deep in oily ooze from a recent spill at the edge of a fresh-water lagoon where he and other villagers fish. The trees around the pond stood barren and blackened, evidence of another spill three years ago.
“This is our business,” Akbagra said, motioning to the pond. “Our livelihood.”
Delta's promise
The Niger Delta, a West Virginia-sized coastal wetland where the Niger River fractures into smaller waterways and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, accounts for nearly all of Nigeria's daily oil production of 2.5 million barrels.
The country is considered a major source of the world's future petroleum supplies, with some seeing it and its neighbors providing about a quarter of U.S. oil imports in a decade. But instability in Nigeria makes many question whether it will fulfill those expectations.
The delta holds one of Nigeria's largest surviving rain forests, the world's third-largest mangrove forest and the greatest extension of freshwater swamps in Africa. The region's brackish creeks, bays and tidal pools are breeding grounds for the marine life upon which many people depend for food and their livelihoods.
Because much of it floods in the rainy season, nearly three quarters of the delta's people live in clusters, increasing their proximity to oil sites.
More than 4,000 spills have occurred in the Niger Delta since oil production began 47 years ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Hundreds of flares burn at any one time. Lit from the natural gas that comes to the surface with extracted oil, the flares spew carbon dioxide and potentially carcinogenic particles.
“They have polluted our water. The creeks are ruined from the oil running into them,” said Robinson Ukalik, 32, a leader in Akala Olo, a delta village about 50 miles west of Port Harcourt, where Agip, the Italian oil company, has been pumping oil for four decades. “The lives of the people are deteriorating.”
The spill near Mogho in October dumped a still-uncalculated amount of crude into a creek, which ran downstream into a brackish estuary and was carried by a rising tide into other streams.
Casava and sweet potato crops in nearby fields were lost. Red snapper and other fish died, according to a report by a local activist group, the Niger Delta Project for Environment, Human Rights and Development.
The subsequent fire — which Royal Dutch/Shell charges was set by someone while its repair crews negotiated with local youths for access to the spill — incinerated fishing boats and mangroves. Local activists deny the fire was intentionally set.
Canvas of blight
From 1,500 feet above on a helicopter flight provided by Shell, which produces a majority of Nigeria's oil, the Mogho spill seemed the newest brush stroke on a canvas of blight.
From the riverfront slums clustered on the edge of Port Harcourt to the seafront oil-storage tanks on Bonny Island, human crowding, industrial refuse and oily film blackened a once-pristine green expanse. Flames from flaring gas licked the horizon to the north, east and west.
Oil spills can have serious consequences in tropical wetlands such as the delta, some scientists say.
Damaged mangrove forests require at least 30 years to recover. In some circumstances, spilled oil can stunt or kill crops, prevent seeds from germinating, suffocate wild plants and aquatic life. Crude contains varying concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons considered carcinogenic.
And the flaring, or deliberate burning, of natural gas has been cited as a leading cause of global warming and a contributing factor to acid rain.
The Nigerian government has vowed to end flaring by 2008 and has claimed to have reduced the amount of gas flared by a third in recent years. Despite efforts to export its gas, use it for local industry or reinject it into oil reservoirs, Nigeria still burns three quarters of its gas by some counts.
All flaring, regardless of how efficient or what petroleum by-products are burned, leaves residue in the air and the soil, said Charles Brandt, a scientist who studies oil production's tropical impact at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Some compounds in that residue are known carcinogens, Brandt said, adding that many of the hundreds of gas flares in the Niger Delta are in or near villages.
Still, oil companies and some studies argue the petroleum industry's environmental impact on the delta may be restrained by the light quality of Nigeria's crude, which evaporates quickly in the tropical sun, and by the torrential rains that regularly flush the delta's landscape.
Other factors at play
A 1995 World Bank study concluded that the environmental impact of oil production in the delta was “widespread and substantial.” But the study also suggested that oil-related pollution was not nearly as threatening as sewage from a rapidly growing population, overuse of farmland and fishing grounds, and unbridled deforestation.
“An oil spill always looks bad. But it wasn't clear (spills) had as much of an impact as other things,” David Moffat, a U.S. environmental specialist who co-wrote the World Bank study, said in an interview. “The (oil-related) pollution itself was not as critical as people made it out to be.”
Robin Lewis, a Florida expert on mangrove ecosystems who has made seven trips to the delta on a ChevronTexaco contract to study the impact of spills, said oil breaks down quickly in tropical terrain.
“It is unscientific to characterize oil as a major impact on mangroves,” Lewis said. “It is not.”
Far greater harm is caused by the delta's demographic explosion, Lewis said, as well as the damming of the Niger River far upstream and the cutting of new canals in the delta, which upend the ecological balance.
Apart from the World Bank report and assessments done for specific projects, few studies have been done on the oil industry's footprint here.
“We don't have any serious scientific studies that would document things that would be pretty easy to document,” said Michael Watts, a geographer at the University of California-Berkeley who studies environmental politics in the delta. “It's astonishing.”
But in the delta's superheated social climate, proof often yields to perception, science to politics.
The widespread awareness of the region's environmental damage has been useful for groups pushing for political and economic change. Leading activists say the real struggle in the delta is for property rights, self-determination and a bigger slice of Nigeria's oil revenues.
“Everything that people want to talk about is a spinoff of these three issues,” said Oronto Douglas, a Port Harcourt lawyer who serves as the deputy director of Environmental Rights Action, the Nigerian affiliate of Friends of the Earth.
“These communities are not supposed to be poor. But their rights are denied them,” Douglas said. “There is a need for those who hold and produce the wealth to have a measure of control over their resources.”
Calls for action
Under pressure from armed militants, Peter Odili, the governor of Rivers state, which includes Port Harcourt and the site of the October spill at Mogho, called last month on Shell to clean up more than 250 spills statewide.
In addition, the president of Nigeria's Senate demanded that Shell pay $1.5 billion in environmental damage compensation that a court had awarded to delta villagers. Shell maintained the Senate had no jurisdiction and that the company and the villagers should settle the matter.
Shell also said that two-thirds of the more than 200 spills in its zone last year resulted from sabotage.
Statistics from the Nigerian National Petroleum Co. — the government agency that holds a majority stake in Shell's and other companies' joint ventures in the delta — show sabotage rising steadily throughout the 1990s and then skyrocketing at the turn of the century. The Nigerian company recorded 581 incidents of vandalism on its pipelines in the first nine months of this year.
Shell acknowledges the need for cleaner oil and gas production. But company executives maintain the real issue is social frustration.
“What has happened is that there has been an increase in the poverty level,” said Precious Omuku, Shell's spokesman in Nigeria. “There has been a lot of want, a lot of deprivation. The development that should have happened in the Niger Delta has not happened.
“So there is a lot of anger.”
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