Despite longstanding laws against gas flaring - the burning of natural gas during oil extraction - in Nigeria, and shifting deadlines to end the practice, the activity continues, with serious health consequences for people living nearby.
In the Niger Delta, where most of the flaring takes places, residents living near gas flares complain of respiratory problems, skin rashes and eye irritations, as well as damage to agriculture due to acid rain.
They are also forced to live with constant noise, heat and light that can lead to sleep deprivation which can degenerate into systemic insomnia. Since flaring involves carbon dioxide and sulphur outputs, in the longer term the heart and lungs can be affected leading to bronchitis, silicosis, sulphur poisoning of the blood, and cardiac complications, said a Port Harcourt doctor, Nabbs Imegwu.
“Extreme long-term exposure can predispose one to, or cause, skin cancer,” he added.
Imegwu’s views are supported by a 2011 report by Environmental Rights Action (ERA), the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth International, which said gas flaring releases “nitrogen oxides and other substances such as benzene, toluene [and] xylene … which are known to cause cancers.” The report says these pollutants can affect communities within 30km of the flares.
While gas flaring has technically been illegal in Nigeria since 1984, the government sometimes grants exemptions to oil companies, and fines for flaring are criticized as being too light to act as a deterrent. An oil worker in Nigeria, who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity, described the fines as “so low that it doesn’t justify much investment” to stop flaring.
Publicly, oil firms say they are working to reduce flaring. However, Ben Amunwa, a researcher with international human rights NGO Platform, pointed to Shell’s most recent Sustainability Report which says the oil firm’s flaring increased 32 percent from 2009 to 2010.
While Shell’s report also says overall from 2002 to 2010 “flaring from SPDC facilities has fallen by over 50 percent,” it says this was partially due to a decrease in oil extraction owing to militant activities. In the same manner, it recognized that the 2010 increase in flaring from 2009 was because oil extraction rose following a drop in violence in the region.
Militant activity in the Delta - mainly attacks on oil infrastructure and oil workers by youths protesting against environmental degradation caused by oil extraction - peaked in 2008, but declined following a 2009 government amnesty programme.
“As oil extraction resumes to its pre-conflict levels, we can expect to see a rise in gas flaring levels across the board,” Amunwa said.
“Some [oil companies] have claimed up to 30 percent reduction [in recent years], but the reality on the ground has not backed up such claims,” the ERA report said.
The vice-president of health, safety and environment and corporate affairs for Shell sub-Saharan Africa, Tony Attah, said in November 2011 that gas flaring “will take a few more years to end”. He also blamed militancy in the Niger Delta for holding up previous Shell programmes to stop flaring.
However, Nnimmo Bassey, ERA’s executive director, dismissed this as a “worn-out excuse”. He questioned how the violence in the region could have repeatedly stopped these programmes while oil extraction actually increased.
NGOs have previously said the failure to enforce environmentally sound practices has been due to weak government institutions and over-reliance on oil revenues, allowing oil firms to call the shots. For example, Shell is yet to comply with a 2005 high court order to end gas flaring in the Iwherekan community, Delta State.
Friends of the Earth Netherlands reported in 2011 that there were about 100 continuously burning gas flares in the Niger Delta and just offshore, some of which have been burning since the early 1960s.
Nigeria has the second highest level of flaring in the world, after Russia; in most countries the excess gas is collected and used to generate power. A 2004 World Bank report said the value of gas flared annually in Nigeria was between US$500 million and $2.5 billion.