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Gas flaring in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria. (Ekpali Saint for The Xylom)

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“We Are Suffering”: Despite Steps Taken, Gas Flaring Still Threatens Livelihoods in Niger Delta


 
 

Each time Oweiere Edugo goes to harvest plantains from her farm, she feels dispirited. Recently, her harvests have been subpar and she is struggling to maintain operations on her farm.

“We cry each time we go to harvest our plantains. We expect big bunches but we get angry seeing small bunches because of [gas] flaring,” she said. “We are really suffering and we don’t know who will intervene.”

Edugo lives in the oil-rich state of Bayelsa, within southern Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Her community, Ogboinbiri, is close to two stacks in a flow station operated by the Nigerian Agip Oil Company since the eighties. From 17 functional oil wells, 50,000 barrels of crude oil and 180 million cubic feet of gas are extracted daily, which is processed at the flow station. Over 1.5 billion cubic feet (45 million cubic meters) of gas was flared in 2022, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.



Gas flaring allows oil companies to depressurize their machinery by burning off any excess natural gas that gets collected in the process of drilling for oil. This is important in Nigeria in particular, because some of its crude oil has natural gas dissolved in it. However, this practice leads to a significant amount of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. It also generates air pollutants such as black carbon and sulfur dioxide that directly and indirectly harm public health, the ecosystem, and the built environment.

“We cry each time we go to harvest our plantains.”

“The level of production of plantains has dropped rapidly. And it is doing well in other communities. The difference is very much,” said Giton Moses, Ogboinbiri’s community development committee chairman.

Due to the health effects of this practice, gas flaring has been made illegal in Nigeria since 1984. To further discourage multinational corporations from flaring gas (Agip is a subsidiary of the Italian conglomerate Eni), the Nigerian government imposed a penalty in 2018. The penalties for bigger generators of oil and gas were instituted to be much higher than those for smaller operations.

There has been some progress made since these regulations were implemented. The World Bank’s March 2023 Global Gas Flaring Tracker Report credited Nigeria, along with Mexico and the U.S., for most of the decline in global gas flaring in 2022. But that is only due to the fact that oil production in Nigeria has declined by a third compared to pre-COVID levels; the amount of gas flared per barrel of oil produced has actually crept up over this period.

Gas flaring in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. (Courtesy of Alogoa Morris)

And yet, the increased regulation still lacks enough teeth to protect residents of Ogbinbiri and other villages. Nigeria is the ninth-biggest gas-flaring country in 2022. The government has repeatedly missed its own deadlines to formally put a stop to the practice in the Niger Delta. The country’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency noted that the volume of flaring last year was equivalent to $450 million in fines, many of which were still unpaid.

“Agip has continued to flare gas illegally in the Ogboinbiri environment, poisoning the people, with negative consequences to the environment in general,” said Alagoa Morris, a project officer with Environmental Rights Action/ Friends of the Earth Nigeria who authored a 2021 field report on Ogboinbiri.

As Agip continues to flare gas in Ogboinbiri without restraint, farmers like Edugo are now considering switching to another profession to survive. Edugo decided to open a drugstore. She hopes her money could send her two children to school.

“You cannot train your children with just farming alone,” she said. “We are suffering and Agip is not doing anything.”

 

Located off the Atlantic Coast, Bayelsa became the first state in Nigeria to discover crude oil in 1956. Nigeria now has the largest gas reserves and second-largest oil reserves in Africa, virtually all coming from the Niger Delta. The oil sector accounts for 95% of Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings and 80% of its budgetary revenues.

At the same time, gas flaring has become the second most polluting environmental issue after oil spills in the Niger Delta region, according to a 2020 research paper funded by the European Union.

The most visible impacts of gas flaring are the result of acid rain caused by sulfur dioxide. Acid rain leaches heavy metals from the soil and into drinking sources or other bodies of water. This causes a decline in crop yields and devastates aquatic life, impacting fisheries. A 2023 review article in Nigeria found that water toxicity from acid rain, combined with heating from flare stacks, has led to the extinction of fish species.

Often, this rain also has black soot and other particulate matter from the flares mixed in. “If rain falls, the water would be black for the first two hours,” Moses said. “The rain will have to fall continuously before you see the normal rainwater.”

“If rain falls, the water would be black for the first two hours. The rain will have to fall continuously before you see the normal rainwater.”

The frequent acid rain also corrodes the roofing sheets in Niger Delta communities like Ogboinbiri, making their homes less sturdy and requiring more frequent replacements. However, locals are also forced to rely on this rainwater for their daily consumption needs. “We don’t have pipe-borne water. If we drilled a borehole here, it would not take us more than a month for the water to become acidic,” Moses explained.

As a result, a lot of residents now report health complications. “Before now, I never heard anything called cancer in this part of the world,” Moses said.” But right now, cancer is everywhere in the community. I don’t know what is causing it but we are all attributing it to gas flaring. In our neighboring communities, nobody is experiencing the level of cancer that we have seen here: Cancer of the breast, leg, and recently, cancer of the mouth. Children are also experiencing rashes.”


Bubaraye Dakolo, the ruler of Bayelsa’s Ekpetiama Kingdom, said that his people have been suffering due to these chemicals for a long time. “We will want to talk about acid rain, corrosion of roofing sheets, and all of that, but beyond that, the noxious chemicals from flared gas are found in our bloodstreams and so responsible for major fatalities, and most times the victims do not know,” he said. “But people are not talking about it and the industry will also pretend not to know. If someone collapses and dies, they will just say it is witchcraft.”

“If someone collapses and dies, the industry will just say it is witchcraft.”

Locals like Edugo have tried to pressure the government and Agip through protests, but they have fallen on deaf ears. Dakolo, who also doubles as Chairman of the Bayelsa State Traditional Rulers Council, said the Nigerian government is part of the problem.

“Why should the community want to draw the attention of the government to a crime the government itself is committing? Is the government not aware that the people are being poisoned?” he said. “If the people must complain then they have to go somewhere else, definitely not to the government and its agencies.”

Gas flaring in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria. (Ekpali Saint for The Xylom)

 

The World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR) is a multi-donor trust fund composed of governments, oil companies, and multilateral organizations, including the Nigerian government and Eni. It claims a commitment to ending routine gas flaring at oil production sites worldwide and maintains the Global Gas Flaring Tracker Report.

In 2022, the Global Gas Flaring Tracker estimated that gas flaring released 315 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 42 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in the form of methane — two of the most dangerous and prevalent greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change — into the atmosphere.

Gas flaring is unsurprisingly the largest single source of atmospheric pollution and carbon dioxide emissions in Nigeria. Estimates of how much carbon dioxide is emitted every year vary; Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) had it at 12 million tonnes, while a 2021 policy report by the Nigerian nonprofit The Society for Planet and Prosperity pegged it at nearly 55 million tonnes.

And yet, power generated from gas flaring alone could’ve met the country’s needs more than twice over, according to NOSDRA – this despite over two in five Nigerians lacking access to grid electricity. While flaring natural gas is wasteful and polluting, it is a cheaper alternative for those drilling for oil in the Niger Delta.


“As far as oil production is concerned, if you don’t flare then you will not produce,” Japhet Bank, a former director of the petroleum and pollution department at the Bayelsa State Ministry of Environment, said. He suggests diverting gas that would have been flared to more productive uses such as electricity generation and liquefied petroleum gas that replaces cooking wood or kerosene.

But this is not happening.

A May 2023 report by the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission criticized international oil companies and other oil producers for failing to “make adequate investments in associated gas gathering infrastructure, which is necessary for converting associated gas for productive use.” Instead, they mostly continue to flare associated gas “despite the adverse impacts on the natural environment and the health of local inhabitants.”

The fact the government of Nigeria has allowed its resources to be flared for the last 60 years has yet to sit well with Dakolo. “Gas is as valuable as crude oil,” he said. “A government that allows 60% of its wealth to be wasted is dumb.”

“Why should the community want to draw the attention of the government to a crime the government itself is committing? Is the government not aware that the people are being poisoned?”

Bank suggested that Nigeria look at Canada, another country home to vast deposits of oil and natural gas (it is a top-five global producer of both resources): Since the Trudeau government took power in 2015, the volume and intensity of its gas flaring were shaved by more than half, while oil production boomed by over a quarter. The country now flares at a rate almost one-twentieth that of Nigeria.


This is primarily because of its stronger federal and provincial policies that regulate practices like flaring, venting, and incinerating at oil and natural gas operations. “Canada is very efficient in monitoring and they have given companies a limit of flaring. During the production, they will tell you this is the quantity of gas you will flare and how much quantity you will divert to other use, ” he said.

According to a 2018 study published in Science, global greenhouse gas emissions from oil and natural gas production would drop by 23% if the world’s oil producers adopt just the minimal flaring regulations. But in Nigeria, the two biggest obstacles to achieving a significant reduction in gas flaring are weak regulations and the fact that small oil wells are scattered in different locations across the country, which prevents economies of scale in implementing solutions, Bank said.

Bank also pointed out that Canada is taking steps to move towards renewable energy; not only does this mitigate long-term climate change impacts, but Canadians no longer have to deal with the immediate harmful effects of burning fossil fuels for good. It helps that Canada instituted a national carbon pricing system in 2019 that helps more accurately account for the costs of pollution, creating a financial incentive for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada now generates over 55 times more renewable energy than Nigeria. Nigeria is mostly tropical and bounded by the Atlantic coast; yet, there is negligible solar and wind energy generation. Renewable energy production, which could have replaced oil production, have barely budged over the past decade.

 

In Ogboinbiri, residents have learned to endure the toxic chemicals caused by the activities of Agip.

“Right now, there is nothing we can do. We cannot move our community away from the flare. We are just living with this menace,” Moses said. “It is something that has come to stay. We are just in a vicious cycle [and] the only option is that we continue and when we get tired, we die and we go. That’s our situation now.”

Edugo agrees. But she still demands Agip to train and empower the locals, especially those who have lost their livelihoods to gas flaring.

“We can’t stop them from flaring,” she said. “But they should bring equipment and money, they should empower the women, and bring skill acquisition centers. They should intervene anyhow.”

 

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Ekpali Saint

Ekpali Saint is a freelance journalist based in Nigeria. He covers climate change, agriculture, environment, aquaculture, religion, education and other development issues. His work has been published in Al Jazeera, FairPlanet, African Arguments, America Magazine, Religion Unplugged and Down to Earth.

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