Gas flaring in Nigeria’s petroleum sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for climate change. Gas flaring is a violation of the Fundamental Right to Life and Dignity of the Human Person as guaranteed under Sections 33 and 34 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended). Pollution of the environment through incessant gas flaring has made the environment unsafe and unhealthy, and has threatened the right to life and dignity of the human person as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended).
WHAT IS GAS FLARING?
According to Oxford’s Dictionary, Flaring means to burn or shine with sudden intensity. Gas flaring is the burning of natural gas associated with oil extraction. It is the process by which natural gas is burned off in a controlled manner when extracting oil. This is done because natural gas can burn in an uncontrolled way and become dangerous. Usually, natural gas is captured, but when this is impossible, it is flared. This reduces the risk of gas ignition to facilities or eliminates product that is not fit for use.
This practice has persisted from the beginning of oil production over 160 years ago, and takes place due to issues ranging from market and economic constraints to a lack of appropriate regulation.
The flaring of natural gas results in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the same way that burning natural gas as fuel would. Flaring releases significant greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and doesn’t produce any useful energy as a result. Flaring is seen as a monumental waste of valuable natural resources that should either be used for productive purposes, such as generating power or conserved. For instance, the amount of gas that is currently flared globally each year is about 144 cubic metres which could power the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Furthermore, depending on the purity of the natural gas, there are other harmful emissions, such as sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides, which combine with the moisture in the atmosphere to form acid rain. This rain in turn acidifies lakes, streams, and damages vegetation. These pollutants can deplete soil nutrients through acidification, harming agriculture. In addition to harming the environment, there are health implications of flaring. Exposure to the emissions of flaring has been proven to have adverse health effects such as cancer, lung damage and skin problems. Flaring releases oil pollutants and particulate matter in the form of soot, which results in poor air quality. Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital has been one of the most affected states in Nigeria by this pollution. Doctors in Port Harcourt have confirmed an increase in the number of people with breathing difficulty, according to reports.
Aside from the health implications of gas flaring, it costs the economy of Nations a lot of money to flare gas. According to the World Bank, gas flaring costs the global economy US$ 20 billion in 2018. The Nigerian economy lost N233 billion (US$761.6 million) to gas flaring which translates to 3.8% of the global total cost in 2018.
However, Section 104 of the Petroleum Industry Act 2021 provides that a licensee, lessee, or marginal oil field operator can only flare or vent gas in the event of an emergency, where exemption has been granted by the Commission, and where such flare is the acceptable safety practice under the regulation. The penalty is a fine as stipulated by the Commission. This penalty is not enough to curb this act. The ripple effect of this is the triggering of the locals in these communities where this gas extraction happens, which in turn breaches the peace in these communities and overall investments in these areas.
Section 106(1) of the Petroleum Industry Act 2021 provides for the installation of metering equipment by the licensee or lessee in every facility where natural gas may be flared or vented before the commencement of petroleum production, and non-compliance attracts a fine that the Authority may prescribe. Under Section 107 of the Act, a licensee or lessee producing natural gas shall, within 12 months of the effective date, submit a natural gas flare elimination and monetization plan to the Authority, in conformity with the regulations formulated under the Act. However, weak enforcement is a challenge to its efficiency.
In 2005, the Federal High Court ruled that oil companies stop flaring gas in the Niger Delta. The judgement was made in the case of Jonah Gbemre v Shell Petroleum Development Company, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and Nigeria’s Attorney General. The Court held that gas flaring was unconstitutional as it violated people’s right to a clean and healthy environment, and ordered them to take immediate steps to stop gas flaring. The Attorney General was further ordered to ensure speedy amendment of the associated Gas Re-injection Act, to be in line with Nigeria’s human rights obligations under both the Nigerian Constitution and the African Charter.
Nigeria is a signatory to the 2001 Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership principles that aim at a flare-out date of 2030. In compliance with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Nigeria submitted its First Nationally Determined Contribution in July 2021. Among other things, it pledged to end gas flaring by 2030. However, Niger Delta-based environmental activists doubt the government’s commitment to such a plan, especially considering the many previously unattained deadlines.
Despite many commitments to take action, the race to Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 in Nigeria is undermined by inconsistent policies, weak implementation and an apparent lack of political will by successive administrations. Between 1969 and 2020, 10 deadlines to end gas flaring in the Niger Delta were changed.
Combating gas flaring is part of Nigeria’s international obligation under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, among others. To reduce the threat to human health and the
environment and to boost the revenue of the federal government, flared gas must be utilised to generate electricity to improve the economic and social welfare of the citizens.
The right to life extends far beyond protection against intentional or unintentional physical harm. It includes safeguards against potentially hazardous activities such as gas flaring, which may hamper a healthy, clean, and safe environment, which are sine qua non or a perquisite to right to life.
The Government must not allow oil firms to conduct their operations in a way that endangers human life. Unsustainable exploitation of extractive resources undermines the sustainability of oil and gas resources; therefore, there is a need for a balance between economic development and sustainable development, and this can only be achieved if there is a political will on the part of the Federal Government, to enforce its anti-gas flaring laws to guarantee energy security and a safe, clean, and healthy environment in Nigeria.
The Nigerian government can also tackle this environmental problem by making the provision of Section 20 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria justifiable. A law should be enacted that would make environmental pollution a strict liability offence, as is the case in developed countries like the United Kingdom, and enforce compliance of multinational oil corporations (MNCs) with national and international environmental laws and standards. The government should not give an option of a fine alone, as gas flaring should also be criminalised and any corporation that refuses to halt flaring should be shut down. The pneumatic system of waste control can also be borrowed in the control of greenhouse gas emissions. This refers to a system whereby the wastes are entirely transported underground. Natural gas can now also be pumped back into oil wells in order to increase pressure and allow for oil to be continually pumped.
However, we now see solid initiative from the government per the Nigerian Gas Flare Commercialisation Programme (NGFCP). This is an initiative by the Federal Government to attract investments and develop a transparent market mechanism for allocating gas flares to competent third-party investors. The program aims to resolve the issue of gas flaring in oil fields, by providing a competitive procurement process and clear criteria for allocating gas flares. The
NGFCP encourages collaboration between the government, industry, state governments, ethnic nationalities, and local communities. This is indeed a welcome development if properly implemented.
As countries pursue global initiatives to end routine gas flaring by 2030, Nigeria’s government and multinational oil companies must be held accountable by the legislature and civil societies to back their commitments with urgent action. Also, commitment to an environmental management plan that reduces the damaging practice in the Niger Delta is needed.
The Nigerian Gas Flare Commercialisation Programme provides investment opportunities as investors can now play an active role in Nigeria’s oil and gas market, as gas that would have been flared would now serve commercial purposes in Nigeria to displace other fossil fuels, such as coal and diesel that generate higher emissions per energy unit.
The Programme should ensure fulfilment of governmental responsibilities to inhabitants of the Niger Delta region and host communities. It should also ensure the government attains its vision for zero gas flare by the year 2030. While we applaud the Nigerian Gas Flare Commercialisation Programme (NGFCP), it is important to reiterate that implementation is key.
Finally, the Host Communities Committees of the National Assembly must hold oil producers accountable in fulfilling their obligations towards the host communities, who bear the brunt of the immense environmental degradation that comes from the mining of oil.Sep 22, 2023 by Iseghohime Efe Esq.
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