Nigeria aims to stop gas flaring

By | October 19, 2009

WSJ: A Lack of Flare: In the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria, petroleum companies use giant torches to burn off natural gas found with deposits of crude oil.

The decades-old industry practice, known as flaring, has long been criticized as wasteful and harmful to the environment because of the carbon dioxide it releases into the atmosphere. But more recently, flaring has become a lightning rod for protests and armed attacks by Nigerian locals, many of whom lack reliable access to electricity and the economic opportunities that go along with it.

Amid escalating unrest that has shut down production of more than one million barrels of oil a day at a cost of billions of dollars in lost revenue, interest is growing in a handful of pioneering power plants that use unwanted gas to provide electricity to communities near the oil fields. There is a push on to build more of them in the belief that the way to prevent the violence that has shaken the West African nation is to address underdevelopment in the Delta, where the wealth generated by oil has done little to improve the lives of residents, who subsist on an average of $2 a day.

“Power will be a key issue” if a recent disarmament deal is to be followed by durable peace, says Kennedy West, who mediates between militants and the government as president of the Association for Non-Violence in the Niger Delta. “Everybody is looking at it.”

Some say proposed legislation that would fine oil companies for failing to stop gas flaring by the end of 2010 at twice the burned gas’s international market value is helping to spur action. Previous deadlines to end flaring in Nigeria have come and gone, but the fines proposed in the latest bill are much steeper than what the government has set in the past.

Today, about a third of the natural gas associated with crude-oil extraction in Nigeria is set ablaze in vertical columns. Most of the rest is liquefied and exported abroad.

While that is an improvement from five years ago, Nigeria ranks behind only Russia when it comes to gas flaring, accounting for 10% of flared gas world-wide—and more than 40 million tons of carbon-dioxide emissions annually—according to statistics from the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership.

Flaring has been going on for decades in Nigeria, the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the U.S. The practice took off for a variety of reasons: The value of natural gas was low compared with oil, the oil industry lacked the pipelines and infrastructure to process and export gas, and there was no organized opposition to petroleum companies—armed or peaceful.

But it has become clear that in addition to carbon emissions, flaring takes a toll on the local environment, aggravating respiratory diseases in people living near the wells and generating acid rain that affects agriculture and fishing.

The most privileged communities in Nigeria are powered by generators that, ironically, rely on expensive imported fuel. At that price, “even hairdressers can’t work,” says Westham Adehor, president of Delta-based charity Youth and Development Initiative, or YDI.

The result is a chicken-and-egg situation, where lack of power fuels a seemingly unbreakable cycle of unrest and underdevelopment. Continue reading.

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