Nigerian Communities Sue Oil Companies to Stop Gas Flaring

LAGOS, Nigeria, June 23, 2005 (ENS) - Eight communities from across the petroleum-rich Niger Delta are suing the largest oil companies operating in the country to force an end to gas flaring. The lawsuit was filed Monday in the Federal High Court of Nigeria in Benin City.

The legal action names as defendants the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Shell, Exxon, Chevron, Total and Agip.

The communities are acting with the support of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA), a nonprofit organization that works on behalf of ecosystem health, human rights, and the furtherance of environmentally responsible practices through empowerment of local Nigerian people.

ERA Executive Director Reverend Nnimmo Bassey said the filing of the legal case is, "a major step in our collective effort as citizens of Nigeria to make oil and gas corporations and the government behave responsibly."

"For too long, we have witnessed the atrocious flaring of associated gas by profiteering oil corporations that hold the people in utmost contempt," Bassey said. "We are calling on the law to defend our impoverished citizens.”

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Local children with water containers at the Shell gas flares at Umuebulu community. These flares are in the Obigbo oilfield, Etche local government area, near Port Harcourt, Niger Delta. March 2004. (Photo © Peter Roderick courtesy FOE International)
Flaring has been prohibited under Nigerian environmental regulations since 1984, unless a ministerial consent has been lawfully issued and conditions have been met. Despite requests by ERA, no consents or conditions have been disclosed by any of the charged companies.

Citing statistics from the gas industry statistics publisher, Cedigaz, ERA points out that more gas is flared in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world, and flaring in the country contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined, according to the World Bank.

Cedigaz figures show that Nigeria accounted for 19.79 percent of global flaring in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, more than the two countries with the next highest flaring rates - Iran and Indonesia - combined.

Gas flaring emits toxic substances, including benzene and particulates, that expose the communities to health and environmental problems, the communities charge.

Tare Dadiowei from Gbarain community in Bayelsa State, said, “It is our hope that the laws of Nigeria will protect us from the continuous violations of our human rights and destruction of our livelihood by Shell. While Shell makes cheap excuses for the continuing flaring of gas in our communities, we bear the huge costs with our contaminated air and soil, diseases and death.”

The communities that filed the lawsuit include Rumuekpe, Akala-Olu, Erema and Idama in Rivers State; Ewherekan in Delta State; Eket in Akwa Ibom State; as well as Imiringi and Gbarain in Bayelsa State.

Shell Nigeria had promised back in 1996 to phase out flaring by 2008. But the company reneged on that commitment in May, saying, "We very much regret that we will not be able to meet the flares-down target of 2008 – and we are discussing with the relevant Nigerian authorities the available options.

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This Shell gas flare at Rumuekpe, adjacent to a large community, is surrounded by agricultural land. (Photo courtesy FOE International)
The company cites funding disappointments and poor performance of contractors in developing a gas collection, distribution and marketing capacity to utilize the gas that is now flared off at its 73 flow stations.

Known in the industry as associated gas, this gas is naturally dissolved in crude oil reservoirs under reservoir conditions of high temperatures and pressures. When the oil is produced and brought to the surface, the dissolved gas separates from the oil and has been burned off in a process called gas flaring.

Over the last five years, Shell says, an investment of over US$2 billion has gone into developing major associated gas gathering projects to collect gas from Shell oil fields across the Niger Delta and supply such gas to Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas and to the National Electric Power Authority for power generation. The company also has its eye on export of gas from Nigerian fields to Europe and other international markets.

Five associated gas gathering projects have now been completed and commissioned and Shell says these project "have contributed to a 33 percent reduction in the volume of gas flared from our operations and eliminated routine flaring at 22 of our 73 flowstations.

Also during 2004, Shell Nigeria says it closed some oil producing wells with high gas-to-oil ratios, which "resulted in a significant reduction of flaring towards the end of 2004."

But the communities say they are still experiencing the harmful effects of gas flaring.

Che Ibegwura from Erema, an Egi community in Rivers State said, “For many years, we have been living with continuous flaring of gas from TotalFinaElf. Our farmlands have been polluted. We labour hard to plant but little comes out. Our roofs are corroded. Our air is polluted. Our children are sick. Even the rainwater we drink is contaminated with black soot from the gas flares. We cannot continue with this suffering. We need to take legal action to protect ourselves, our children and our future.”

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Woman tending her plot at Shell gas flare site, Rumuekpe. (Photo courtesy FOE International)
Gas flaring represents "a significant economic loss" to the Nigerian economy of about US$2.5 billion annually, according to "Strategic Gas Plan for Nigeria," a joint UNDP/World Bank Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme paper from February 2004.

At the same time, 66 percent of the Nigerian population is estimated by the World Bank to live on less than US$1 a day.

Peter Roderick, co-director of the Climate Justice Programme says fuel resources are wasted and greenhouse gases emitted in violation of the human rights of communities that live near the gas flares. He hopes the leaders of the world's richest countries meeting for the G8 Summit July 4 to 6 in Scotland will take note of the seriousness of this complex of problems.

“As the G8 prepares to discuss climate change and Africa, Nigerian gas flaring provides them with an outrageous example of the problems," Roderick said. It is a shameful and indefensible stain on the reputation of western oil companies."

"It is astonishing that it continues on such a scale when Nigerian regulations have prohibited the practice in general since 1984," Roderick said.

The filing of the case was acommpanied by the release Monday of a report written by ERA and the Climate Justice Programme. Entitled, “Gas Flaring in Nigeria : A human rights, environmental and economic monstrosity.”

The report is available online at: http://www.climatelaw.org/gas.flaring/report/gas.flaring.in.nigeria.html

The Climate Justice Programme is an initiative hosted by Friends of the Earth International to encourage and support the enforcement of the law internationally to combat climate change. Over 70 organizations and lawyers are signatories to its Statement of Support, including E-LAW, Greenpeace, WWF and organizations based in developing countries.