We need to criminalise oil spillage in Nigeria –Idabor

Director General, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, Sir Peter Idabor

Oil spillage is one of the environmental challenges confronting the country. Since oil production began in 1956, a number of oil producing communities have been under the siege of oil spills as it has not only destroyed their environment, it has also wrecked a serious damage on their means of livelihood. In this interview with OLUFEMI ADEOSUN and REGINA OTOKPA, the Director General, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, Sir Peter Idabor gave insight into how the country can reduce the incidence of oil spillage.

Do you think the agency has been properly empowered to undertake this task given the enormous power oil companies that are involved in spills wield within the political circles?

Nigeria is about the sixth or seventh world largest producer of crude oil. If you check in line with what is happening in other countries, you will say yes, but to my mind, I think more needs to be done. We have our law which takes charge of oil spills, but unfortunately, the law does not give us the sufficient power to punish people who are involved in oil spills. It does not make any provision to criminalise the issue of oil spillage. We are currently working on this as efforts are being made at the National Assembly to make some amendments to the Act under which our agency operates.

There are some legislators who oversee the environment who have taken up the issue of amending the NOSDRA act so that we will be able to get more power to bite. In countries like Brazil and Norway, if you spill oil you pay, but our own people in Nigeria are not helping matters. A situation where our own youths engage in illegal refining, oil bunkering and escalating the issue of pollution of the environment, it is not helping us. This is because; some industry operators hide under this cover to deny their liabilities for oil spillage.

When the regulatory authority approaches them when they pollute, they tell you point blank that “what we are polluting is very small compared to what Nigerians are doing”. This is one of the fundamental problems we are facing as a regulator in this sector. Another serious issue, is the bitter problem of insecurity and our own advice is that our security agencies should be up and doing.

A lot of unemployed youths engaging in this illegal bunkering. As a regulator, beyond monitoring spills, how do you think they can be engaged?

Aside a few that are driven by greed, I think most of the youths who engage in these criminal activities are pushed into it by poverty and ignorance. Apart from ensuring that they are gainfully employed, a lot of public awareness campaigns should be done to make these people living in our communities to become aware of the dangers associated with the poison in crude oil. As long as the people continue to engage in any act of vandalism, the pollution in the oil industry would go unabated and our environment and people’s health will be the worse for it.

For us, what we are craving for is that the amendment must scale through so that we can get more space to function as a regulator.

What is the current status of the bill?

The amendment has passed the first and second reading and is now in the third reading. There has been a steady progress, but we need expeditious passage. What we are seeking for in the amendment is to enable us get the power to bite, to criminalise all these offences associated with oil spills. Some people spill oil and they don’t even report it and one of the problems we are also having is that our own sister agencies who are operators also spill and when we try to control them they will say,” You can’t control me as I am also a government agency”.

We believe that Nigeria should upgrade to the internationally acceptable standard. The multi nationals who are operating here cannot do this in their own countries. We have been to Brazil, Norway and other places where oil exploration activities take place and you cannot find a place where oil companies degrade the environment like in Nigeria.

In Brazil, for instance, you cannot put oil in the Amazon jungle because the wild-life bio -diversity there remains a serious source of revenue and our own forest resources are being decimated due to oil exploration. People who rely on non timber forest products for their food are no longer getting enough.

You said the amount stipulated in the NOSDRA Act as fine for companies that engage in oil spill is not commensurate with the actual crime.

What do you think will be an appropriate fine?

It is not as commonplace as you have put it; it is expected to be calculated on the rate per barrel spill. It depends on the quantity spilled multiplied by a fraction. Another unfortunate issue is that the federal government is also a partner in the joint venture, even when we ask them to pay hundred naira; the federal government will decide to pay fifty out of the hundred naira.

What do you think the Federal Government can do to change the tide of pipe line vandalism?

The government has not done enough to protect the nation’s source of wealth; it goes beyond deploying security personnel to guide pipelines. There are a lot of belief systems in the oil-rich region that needed to be addressed through massive awareness campaigns. The country is losing millions of naira to the activities of illegal refiners apart from the serious impacts on the environment and the people’s source of livelihood. For instance, the crude oil they pour into the water gets into the mud which is food to the leaves.

These leaves are eaten by water animals such as fish, snail, periwinkles. The consequence is that they are already poisoned with substances that could cause cancer.

But our people are ignorant of this fact. Capacity building is very crucial as much as we insist oil operators conduct their business in accordance with the internationally acceptable standards. As it is today, oil operators in the country are taking the advantage of the criminal activities of some people to get away from owing up to their spills. For instance, some of them do not report spill and even when they report, they have a way they of evading punishment.

Our message is that NOSDRA should be empowered to regulate the industry, to carry out stakeholders’ consultation and ensure people become more aware. We should also try to create compensation regime to ensure that our people are not being cheated. In most cases, because the oil companies have enough money to play with, they often get out unpunished when they have issues with the communities.

There have been various allegations that three years after the submission of the report of the United Nation Environmental Programme, UNEP, on the Ogoni oil spill, the federal government has not done much in the area of implementation of the report.How correct are these allegations?

I don’t think it is correct to say that Federal Government has failed to implement the report. When the Federal Government set up a committee led Rev. Fr. Matthew Kukah to come up with recommendations on the Ogoni pollution, the committee commissioned a United Nations Environmental Programme to come up with a report on what should be done to address the issue of pollution in Ogoni land and when the report was released in 2011, the then minister of environment sprang into action and we were asked to move down to Port Harcourt and discuss with the Governor of Rivers State, Mr. Rotimi Ameachi.

The eight emergency issues requested by UNEP includes: ensuring that the affected people have access to clean water, to seal up all the water wells that were already poisoned, establish sign posts to warn people to stay away from taking their bath in some of the already polluted water, to check into the medical records of that area to see if a correlation can be established between oil mining activities and the incidence of disease among the people of Ogoni land.

The minister sent me and the Managing Director of Shell to meet Ameachi and we were able to resolve the issue of water. Later on, the Federal, Government set up a body known as Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project, HYPREP, which was also established as another Adhoc body that will also address the Ogoni land issue in line with the recommendations of the UNEP report.

The HYPREP body went on to deal with some of the other emergency issues recommended by UNEP like putting sign posts, coordination of the water project etc. The Adhoc committee had some difficulties and the money for the irrigation project appeared not to have been made available. But over the last few weeks, concerted efforts have been made by the Federal Government through the Minister of Petroleum Resources to immediately readdress those issues that are highlighted in the UNEP report. A multi stakeholder committee comprising the Ministry of Environment, Petroleum Ministry, and Department of Petroleum Resources will also anytime from now set up infrastructure and the oil companies are ready to make the money available. In the face of all these practical steps so far taking by the federal government, it would be mischievous for anyone to say that not much has been done about the report.

What will be the function of this stakeholder committee?

The multistakeholder committee will come up with the modalities for the total clean up of Ogoni land. It is not only Ogoni land only that is polluted in Niger Delta. There are people waiting in the wings, saying what of us, is it only ogoni land? These are difficult issues to address, but I think government is determined to address it using Ogoni land as classic example.

Nigeria was recently made the Regional Coordinating Centre for West, Central and Southern Africa in matters relating to marine oil pollution by the Abidjan Convention. What benefit does the new status confer on Nigeria in the area of oil pollution control?

Water has no enemy; it finds its level anywhere and everywhere. The Atlantic Ocean continues from Nigeria down to South Africa where it links the Indian Ocean. Nigeria is a member of the global initiative for the West, Central and Southern Africa which is called the “GI WACAF” and it is a platform for cooperation of all the 22-member countries that make the Abidjan Convention that anytime they have solutions or issues that extend to certain limits you call your brother to come and help.

Abidjan has been handling all other aspects of this project until last year when the paper came for the first time for us to bid for the hosting of the headquarters for this convention. We were, through the help of the Ministry of Finance, able to pay our dues and also fill the form for bidding. Luckily Nigeria won this bid and the contingent from Abidjan has come to present a letter to the minister. As it were now, it’s just like having Nigeria also as the headquarters of ECOWAS permanently. Nigeria has by this new status, become the permanent headquarters for the coordination of emergency response for the whole of these stretch of countries.

Is it possible for Nigeria to achieve zero oil spills?

No, there is nothing like zero spills. What we are clamouring for is that it should be minimised to a manageable level. Operationally, there is no machine that is perfect, even the pipes can have issues and that is why we have a department here for asset integrity. We are interested in knowing how old the pipeline network is, to know if you have done pigging to check the fitness of the pipes as to when it will start rusting. We are also interested in the data of the pipeline infrastructure that will help to prevent the spill itself. But there is no way oil spill can be avoided totally because it is a mechanical thing.

However, we want to say that our vision is to have zero spills.

If the Federal Government is aiming at a zero percent, what is the current percentage of oil spillage in the country currently?

Nigeria ranks first in terms of oil pollution in the world as far as I am concerned. Our people are not helping matters. The industries are capitalising on what they see on ground. If you don’t keep your house in order and a stranger comes in, he will follow suit and nothing will happen. Our own Nigerian brothers who work in the oil companies are not helping matters because they are following the dictates of their employers.

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