Where’s the off switch for Nigerian energy waste?

Nigeria burns off annually up to 2.5 billion dollars worth of natural gas. The reason for this waste is the country’s inability to sell its gas or keep it underground. Several dozens of gas flares were placed onshore all over the Niger Delta – big flames expelling huge amounts of carbon dioxide, so bright that they are visible from space.

Photo: Non-stop flaring lights in the Niger Delta – red dots pinpoint gas flares locations, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Source: NASA Earth Observatory / NOAA

Seen from space, the oil-rich Niger Delta looks like a region of flashing lights. These lights spread across an area much larger than Lagos, home to more than 10 million Nigerians, and make it one of the most illuminated regions in Africa. The brightness doesn’t come from a big city or a web of towns, though. It comes from the burning of unused natural gas.

On Earth, the large flames of these gas flares throw so much light, that nearby communities “do not see the difference between night time and day time”, says Kentebe Ebiaridor, an environmental activist with the organization Environmental Rights Action (ERA), based in Port Harcourt, in the Niger Delta. Some of the flares in the country have been burning non-stop for more than forty years.

Living next door to roaring flames hasn’t been easy for the locals in the Niger Delta. These lights, which never get off, “damage eye sight quickly”, says Ebiaridor. Among the people affected are the Ogonis. This indigenous people has lived in the region for several centuries. But in recent decades their lives have changed significantly, according to activist Legborsi Saro Pyagbara. In a 2007 paper Pyagbara detailed the difficulties faced by the Ogonis since oil companies arrived – oil spills, effluent discharges and gas flares, which, he warned, bring way too much light.

“Light pollution subjects the living organism around the vicinity of the flare to 24-hour daylight. This affects diurnality and night-time patterns in animals. The flares drive away game; it affects the reproduction of fish as well as sending fish to deep sea areas”, explained Pyagbara, an activist with the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People.

But turning on the gas flare switch doesn’t only bring more light. It also fires up a pollutants-loaded flame which can contain sulphur dioxide, methane, benzene, toluene or xylene, for instance.

Shell, Nigeria’s largest oil producer guarantees that independent contractors are monitoring the air in the region. And air quality levels around its flare sites comply with international standards, the company says. Still, environmental activists are very concerned about possible health risks for communities living close to the gas flares. They have warned that flaring can cause premature death, leukemia and respiratory illnesses. Another big concern is acid rain caused by flaring and the large amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by the burned gas, which add to the planet’s constant raise in temperatures.

Graphic – CO2 emissions from gas flares

Source: US Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Nigeria is the second largest flaring country in the world, after Russia. Hence, it is also the second country worldwide with the highest CO2 emissions resulting from gas flare, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Burning up natural gas was outlawed in Nigeria in 1984, but authorities can issue a permit for oil companies to flare gas in exchange for a certain fare. Environmental activists complain these fares are too low and that the government is not doing enough to turn off flaring lights completely.

“If the political will is not there, I think the commitment is also not there from the foreign companies to do what is right”, says Kentebe Ebiaridor, from ERA. The Nigerian government keeps postponing the deadline to stop gas flaring in the country.

The last deadline the authorities failed to meet was December, 31 2012. Earlier this year, Nigerian Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, recognized that “flaring has reduced noticeably, but this is not enough.” She then rescheduled a 22% gas flaring decrease to be met by 2017.

The country needs an infrastructure upgrade to stop flaring and to be able to capture the gas. Shell says it has been trying to install the necessary equipment, but so far it has experienced constraints: “funding shortfalls”, “security concerns which made it unsafe for staff and contractors to work in large parts of the delta for long periods of time” or “delays in contract approval processes.”

According to a 2011 report written by members of London-based think tank Chatham House, other reasons may explain the upgrade delay: “Alternatives to flaring have not been implemented, in part owing to disputes between international oil majors and local authorities regarding who should pay the bill.”

While Nigerian authorities and companies try to find a solution, gas keeps being flared. The switch has yet to be turned off and there’s no end in sight for this energy waste.

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