By Okechukwu Nnodim
The Director-General, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, Idris Musa, tells OKECHUKWU NNODIM in this interview that oil spill incidents by International Oil Companies, their local counterparts and host communities are now being criminalised and will attract severe sanctions, among other issues
It is becoming almost impossible to address the incessant oil spill incidents in the Niger Delta region. Why is this so?
Oil spill in the Niger Delta has been very worrisome. It is worrisome in the sense that an oil spill ordinarily is something that we can combat or prevent to a very large extent, such that when you hear of the oil spill, it will be something that is not normal. That is what an oil spill is supposed to be. Why will it be something that is not routine? It is because based on our mandate and the international convention that puts this agency in place, the domestication of that convention is what made it possible for us to even have NOSDRA in the first instance. And this international convention is referred to as the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation, to which Nigeria is a signatory.
If you look at the keywords in the name of the convention, it means that you prepare for oil pollution, and how do you prepare for it? You prepare for it by having a contingency plan, such that if you have an oil spill incident, you are already prepared to combat it and respond to it. And in responding to it, you need to have some kind of cooperation from various stakeholders – the one who spilled the oil, the regulator and other people who have to participate in the response activities. So, you see the cooperation. And it goes beyond that, to how you now pay compensation where necessary, and how you have to pay back the cost of combating the oil spill. There are costs that you can defray, while there are others that you cannot defray. But in the Nigerian context, there is a little departure from this.
You have it on the agency’s website that there were 596 publicly available oil spill records in 2022, which were more than the 404 recorded in 2021 and the 433 recorded in 2020. Is the situation getting worse?
The answer is not far-fetched. By the content of the law establishing the agency, every oil spill incident must be reported, no matter how small. So, if you see that number of over 400 and 500 spills, it shows you that we are living up to our bidding and the oil companies are also responding by reporting. All those reports could be concealed as if nothing happened. They could simply say only 15 or 20 oil spills happened in a year. But something inside you will tell you that that cannot be true. That is why you have that number. You have those numbers on our Oil Spill Monitor, which was created by the agency in order to show transparency, so that nobody will accuse you of sweeping anything under the carpet.
But why has it been increasing?
Remember we have a lot of issues in the Niger Delta. Even up till last Monday, out of annoyance, a vessel was destroyed. And I can tell you that I support the blowing up of that maritime tanker, because several of them have been apprehended before and then detained. But if you ask me where those maritime tankers are today, we don’t know. So, I’ll say anyone (tankers) caught stealing the country’s wealth should be completely destroyed. There’s no need to take it or give it to anybody; it is better destroyed so that it will not come back again. But if you sell it and say you want to recover some money from it, it will come back again, and perhaps take even more than what you probably sold it for. That is what you see happening.
So, the increase is a reflection of the oil theft that is going on. Hitherto, we had spills, which were due to equipment failures. If you check our Oil Spill Monitor, you will see that we did not have so many equipment failures. What we have are outright vandalism and oil theft. And that is why up to a point we were producing less than one million barrels of crude oil daily as opposed to the over two million barrels production quota given to us by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. As of the last check, which was last Tuesday, we had moved up to 1.24 million barrels per day and we are still short by about 900,000 barrels. The reason for this is that if you produce the crude, where do you pass it through? It is through the pipelines and they are laced with valves for oil theft, and that is what the issue is. How do we combat oil theft?
The impact of oil spills on land and aquatic animals has been devastating. Could you give us an idea of the hectares of land or the size of water bodies that have been destroyed by oil spills?
That cannot be given exactly, because if you check the number of spill incidents, not all of them are of medium scale. Some are very low, while others can be as low as one barrel or less than a barrel, but it must be reported. If it is not reported and we are able to detect it, there is a sanction for that. So, not all of the spills are large. Again if you look at our website, you will see the quantities of oil that were spilled. We categorised them into zero to five barrels, five to 25 barrels, 25 to 50 barrels, and above 50 barrels. So you will see that the number of oil spills from zero to 25 barrels is much higher, while those over 50 barrels are lower. So, to that extent, if you encounter a spill of one barrel, what area will it cover? But those that are sizable enough, whenever we do post-spill impact assessment, it also goes with the area that such a spill covers. Again, if you check the Oil Spill Monitor, you will see that for every oil spill incident, you have the quantity spilled, the date of the spill, the estimated area of impact, etc.
For emphasis, who gets the larger blame for oil spill; is it the oil companies, pipeline vandals, illegal oil bunkerers, operators of illegal refineries, or the government?
I want to absolve the government from it, and this is not because I am working for the government. But I will absolve the government from it in a way. I will also absolve the oil companies from it in a way. I will further absolve the host communities from it in a way. Those are the three critical stakeholders – the government, oil companies and the communities. The oil business in Nigeria runs on two main legs. One is joint venture partnerships with International Oil Companies such as Shell Petroleum Development Company, Chevron Nigeria Limited, TotalEnergies, ExxonMobil, Nigeria Agip Oil Company, and the middle ones like Seplat, etc. Many of these oil companies are either joint venture partners or are run based on Production Sharing Contracts, particularly the middle and the smaller ones, and also some of the subsidiaries of the major ones, such as SNEPCO, Deep Water, Agbami and Esso Exploration Production Nigeria Limited, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil.
On the government side, we have regulatory agencies in place. NOSDRA for the environment, the Nigeria Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission, and the Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority. The NUPRC and NMDPRA regulate the technical and commercial activities of the oil sector as stated in the Petroleum Industry Act. Then, NOSDRA is in charge of environmental issues. The government has also put in place the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, whose major mandate is the surveillance and protection of the country’s public utilities. Pipelines are majorly owned by the Nigerian government, and so also are electricity transmission lines. So, you can see that institutional frameworks are there. But then you have people who will make sure that the mandates of these institutions are carried out to the letter.
So, to what extent are they carrying out these functions? That is why we see a lot of things happening, for instance, as I said earlier, we have had arrests of maritime tankers, barges and locally-made canoes that are used to steal crude oil. Some of them are also used to steal petroleum products. They were arrested, but you will not know when they are charged. And even when they are charged, it is not the day that they are charged that the judgment is given. And so along the line, everything fizzles away. How do we curb that so that they won’t come back? I think the frustration from that is what probably informed the decision of those who destroyed the maritime tanker you saw last Monday.
Are you exonerating the oil companies completely from this?
On the oil companies, I have said that we do not need to continue playing the ostrich, because we play it every time. When you say pipeline surveillance, some oil companies will tell you that they have awarded contracts to local communities to watch over their pipelines. For God’s sake, this is the 21st century. When you ask a community person to watch over your pipelines, you give him a contract; does he have the right to carry an AK-47 rifle? Is he going to use a stick or voodoo to stop those who are coming to steal oil? Those who come to steal oil come fully armed to the teeth. So, what can a local community member do to somebody with AK-47, AK-49 or even bigger ammunition? He can do little or nothing.
Even when you give the contract to them and crude oil is stolen from them, do you charge them and send them to jail? Does this happen? No! Therefore, we should know and the oil companies know that that cannot work. To me, I see that as public relations. If you really want to nip it in the bud, what you need to do is to introduce technology. There are a lot of remote technologies that you can use to see who is moving near your pipelines. And when you spot it from your monitor, you can now deploy rapid response to that particular location and then blow them out. That is not done, but it is what should be done.
Saudi Arabia produces about 10 million barrels of oil daily. Our own is less than two million barrels per day. We are about five times more in population than Saudi Arabia, but they are five times more in crude oil production than us. They don’t use communities to watch over pipelines. They do it by using technology. Some days ago, they showed it on the television. Anywhere you go near any asset in Saudi Arabia, they see it from their control room. Why can’t we do that? That is what the oil companies need to do. The communities too, since they know they are helpless, tend to aid these people (oil thieves), forgetting that when the oil is stolen, the implication on the environment resulting from that theft is dangerous. And the ecosystems in these areas are very fragile in the sense that oil spills destroy the habitat of aquatic species that form the main livelihood of people in the area. So the problem is three-fold, everybody has his own fault. But I believe that it is something that can be stopped. However, if we really want to stop it, we must invest hugely in technology to do surveillance on oil facilities.
Your agency’s reports said 18,855 barrels of oil, representing 2,979,120 litres and 94 oil tanker trucks, were spilled, has the monetary loss over the years been quantified?
That is an estimated net volume over the years, because whenever a spill occurs, the first thing to do is to stop the source of the spill. If it is a pipeline, the nearest valve to it will be locked so that the flow will stop. You now begin what we call recovery, and you recover to a level that is practically possible. So, it is not all that is spilled that is lost; you recover as much as possible. Then, the leftover is what you now begin to clean up. So, in most cases, that is what you see in that report. When you clean up, depending on the time it takes to conclude the clean up, you may need to remediate, because the oil would have sat in a particular position for some time. And then in the process, it begins to permeate or sip into the soil surface. And if you want to quantify that, it will be the barest minimum.
Shouldn’t there be stiffer penalties against errant companies that have aided the prevalence of oil spills in the Niger Delta?
We did something in the amendment of our establishment Act recently, whereby we want to criminalise oil spill incidents and the criminalisation of these incidents is not going to be one-sided. It is going to be both ways, for the communities and oil companies. In other words, if you spill oil in any way, if it is equipment failure, you’ll have to pay a certain amount of money for each barrel of oil that is spilled into the environment by way of a fine. The current state of the Act is that when you spill and you do not report, there will be sanctions against you. But what we are trying to say in the amendment to the Act is that if you spill at all, if it is equipment failure, which is your fault as a result of your equipment, you will pay certain fines per barrel. This is in the amendment to the establishment Act, though that has not come through yet.
Secondly, if it is as a result of equipment failure caused by a community, that community belongs to a local government, which belongs to a state, so there should be a deduction at source from the allocation going to that state. The state can now take it down to the local government and then to the community where the spill happened. Let me tell you that it will be better than what obtains currently. This is because what happens now is that you will hear that there is an oil spill here or there, and in some cases, it could be members of a community that caused it and there will be no reprimand.
But if you hold the head of that place responsible, he will be able to pinpoint to you those who may have done that. But now, there is no reprimand, and anything that does not have a reprimand is as good as a free-for-all. Anywhere there is no law, you give room to lawlessness. Somebody must be held responsible. So, if you deduct such money from the source, nobody will want to have any deduction in his allocation next time. If the deduction of your allocation is a result of what happened in your area, next time you will tell the people in your area to be very careful.
Something close to that is what Addax did in an area called Isongbe down to Egbema. They have a system whereby, not just the one that you will give surveillance to communities, no! They told the communities that, look, if within your area we do not record oil spills in a period of one year, this is what we have for you as a package. If you can ensure that in your domain there is no oil spill and our assets are not damaged in any way, this is the package for you. And it worked. In other words, the communities ensured that nobody came from within them to tamper with the assets. And if it is not possible for somebody to come from within, then nobody from within will aid an external person to come to do any destruction, because they know that there is a package waiting for them at the end of the year.
Even if those with AK-47s should come, the communities will know how to place a call to the oil company and inform it that some people are at the facilities and should be taken off. Addax does that. So, you can see that these are some ways of addressing this, and if you cannot do that, then get technology. There is technology and we have seen so many vendors who have recommended such technologies to the oil companies one after the other. But nobody seems to want to take them and the reasons are clear. You could see sometimes back when they pointed fingers at some illegal valves that some people were using to ferry out our crude oil, did you see anybody lay claim to them? It is not new; we’ve always drawn attention to that. How will you not know that somebody tapped from your facility? And some of these facilities are so close to the flow stations and security locations. We need to be more patriotic in this matter.
What is NOSDRA doing to avert oil spill in the North once exploration begins since the Federal Government has discovered oil there?
This question was asked four years ago when I was just appointed as the director-general of this agency. Of course, I’ve been in this agency from scratch. The House of Reps member from the North asked that question because he was worried. But at that time, they had not even got as far as they have got now in Kolmani. And his question was, ‘What are you going to do to prevent what is happening in the South from happening in the North?’ My answer to him was very simple. I said the major thing we are going to do has started. One, we have established zonal offices in Gombe, Kano and Jos. Hitherto there had been pipelines running across those areas, carrying petroleum products to Maiduguri, Gombe, Bauchi, Jos and Kano. So, even for the downstream side, we’ve had offices there. And I said the first thing that the oil companies that are going to operate there need to do is to have a contingency plan. Remember at the beginning of this interview I did say that the oil spill contingency plan under the OPRC is such that you have the preparedness to combat an oil spill if it happens.
So, the people who will operate the Kolmani field in Gombe and Bauchi will have to have an oil spill contingency plan, which we will monitor, activate and carry out some exercises to ensure that they have the wherewithal to prepare and combat any spill if it happens. Once that is there, it is as good as there will not be an oil spill. Secondly, the oil spill contingency plan is like having a fire extinguisher in your car that is there for deployment if there is a fire outbreak. Thirdly, the way the Kolmani oil field is programmed to operate is such that we will not have to go too far with pipelines. So, in other words, there is going to be a cluster of activities around the area by way of gas utilisation from the gas that will come out from the well, and it will not be flared but will be utilised. There are commercial purposes that can make use of the gas; we have Liquefied Petroleum Gas and Compressed Natural Gas. Those two alone can take care of the gas that will come up from there.
We will not need to transport the gas from the North to the NLNG in Bonny down South for export, since we can utilise the gas where it is produced in the North. Industries that need the gas will be located near it and then utilise it. You only go there to take your products. The gas plants can service the people in that area, and it is in two big states, Gombe and Bauchi. It is then extended to Kano, Yobe, Borno and Taraba. So, that is the preparation that is there and, of course, the oil itself will have some small refineries around it that can refine crude. You may not really need to trade that oil out. If you need to do that, it means you have to run another pipeline from those places down to the coast.
Do you think oil spill would have been minimal if the refineries were working, or it doesn’t make much difference?
The refineries have nothing to do with oil spill incidents. Refineries have their allocation of crude oil. If you check the records, the existing refineries in Warri, Port Harcourt and Kaduna are supposed to be fed with about 450,000 barrels of crude oil per day in some ratios of sharing. But even at that, when the refineries were working, there were spillages of oil. So, it does not prevent oil spill incidents. In the case of the North, what I’m saying is that we will not need to transport products by pipelines to far locations, except you now want to go to the wellhead itself to steal crude oil, which is almost impossible, because of the cluster of activities that will happen in that area. So, it has automatic insulation against oil theft and the possibility to spill. So, if we have any spill there, it will be the kind of spill that should ordinarily happen, either accidental or equipment failure. And it will take a long time before equipment failure begins to happen by way of pipeline commission, because it is still a new thing that is being developed.
You talked about a contingency plan for the Kolmani oil field. Do you think there is any such plan in place?
There is a contingency plan. Don’t forget that it is still in the hands of the government, that is the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited. By the time it is given out to another company to run based on the bids that they will do, whoever wins it must have a contingency plan and HSE (Health, Safety and Environment) or in some cases HSSE (Health, Safety, Security and Environment) plan. That is how it works.
The Ogoni clean-up has been slow. The Federal Government tied this to litigation by some civil society organisations and indigenes. What do you think is responsible for this?
That is exactly what is responsible. The CSOs, on one hand, the indigenes on another and, of course, litigation. I headed operations there. I’ve been involved in the clean-up of Ogoni from scratch, beginning with the environmental assessment of that place. And when the administration of former President Muhammadu Buhari came to be in 2015 and ministers were appointed in November, I remember that the Minister of Environment at that time, who is currently the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Muhammed, and the Minister of State, who is currently the Emir of Nasarawa, put in their best to make sure that something happened there. Realising that Mr President made a promise to the Ogoni people when he went there to campaign in 2014/15 that he would implement the United Nations report on the clean-up of Ogoni, they put in their best to make sure that that programme came to be.
What they did was to first ensure that the HYPREP that was put together by the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources under Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, we saw that it was not the appropriate way of doing things. So, it was taken down and re-programmed properly. Even the name was wrong. They called it the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project when it was not the environment but the petroleum agency, and we do not restore pollution, we remediate it. So, we changed the wordings though the acronym remained the same. The name was now changed to Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project and we started with that.
Then, there was a gazette. Hitherto, the first one that was done, the oil companies did not buy into it. And which are the oil companies? It was a joint venture that had the SPDC in it, and it consists of the Federal Government, 55 per cent; SPDC itself, 30 per cent; Total Energies as it is today, 10 per cent; and Eni Nigeria Agip Oil Company, five per cent. And the contributions they made were in that ratio. So, the oil companies insisted that unless they saw a transparent and accountable mechanism for the clean-up by way of funding, they were not going to put in a dime. They made this clear, even in one of our outings at the National Assembly. Yes, they are ready to contribute money to clean up Ogoni land, but this is unless there is transparency and accountability as their headquarters stated. Of course, you know Shell is Anglo-Dutch, TotalEnergies is French, Eni is Italian and the Federal Government represents Nigeria.
They said their principals at home said that if they did not see a transparent and accountable framework, they were not going to put in a dime, and they lived to it. So, the ministers had wide consultations and there was an inter-ministerial committee that looked into the HYPREP as it then was, and redrafted the entire gazette. And in the redrafted gazette, they now put in place a board of trustees for the fund, governing council to supervise the day-to-day activities, and then a coordination office for the running of the activities there. In other words, there were three distinct bodies, the project coordination office, the governing council that directly supervises the project coordination office, and then the board of trustees, which holds the bag containing the money.
The project coordination office will submit whatever it wants to do. The governing council, of course, the membership was well spread, was chaired by the Minister of Environment. He and other council members will make sure that whatever the organisation wants to do is well checked if it is reasonable, okay and within what needs to be done. It will now approve and send to the board of trustees, stating that this and that have been considered and approved, and release money for it. The BoT will now release the money to the project coordination office. Upon the utilisation of such funds, the project coordination office will account for it and present it to the governing council and then send it back to the BoT.
So, when you had that kind of transparent and accountable process, the oil companies now came up and they started funding. Today, there is no problem of funding in HYPREP. What we have as delays are caused by litigation. Sometime in February/March this year, somebody went to court to seek an injunction to freeze the account of HYPREP. If you freeze the account of HYPREP, how will the job go on? You are putting a stop to it. And for the period of time that this freezing of the account existed, there was no work. Secondly, some will go to court to say we do not agree with this or that. Again, until you settle out of court or the case is discharged from the court, there will be delays. And when you want to even work, you see that there will be some interests here and there, people coming out to say unless this is done, nothing should happen. However, all those challenges were properly solved.
I remember when I was there as head of operations, we did what we called sensitisation of all the communities where we were going to do remediation activities. And for every contractor that manages any site there, there are five segments of people that you need to appease for you to have unfettered access and a seamless work time frame. They include the traditional rulers, council, community development committee, women, youths and then another one. And once they did that, they were able to move. However, in fairness to them, the first 21 lots that we did went unfettered. Those 21 lots have now been completed. The second batch that followed had 35 lots and it is about 80 per cent completed. The local government areas involved include Eleme, Tai, Gokana and Kana. There is none of the four LGAs in Ogoniland involved in this clean-up that has not had a fair share of the clean-up and they are all in Rivers State. They are among the 23 LGAs in Rivers State. So, remediation is going on, livelihood training has been done, water and electricity projects are going on, because there was a conscious effort to link Ogoniland to the national power grid. It is part of the current things that are going on now there.
In addition to that, in March/April this year, there was the groundbreaking for the Centre of Excellence and Environmental Research in Ogoniland. Also, another set of contracts has just been signed, which the contractors that won the bids are now mobilising to site. But what they are doing now is that they are trying to settle some residents, because in some places you will see farmlands in the areas they want to clean up. We have somebody who has some food crops and economic trees where they want to clean, as well as some social facilities. So, we have to settle those people and that is ongoing. Anybody who wants to make mischief will be the one to say nothing is going on in Ogoniland. That is not true.