Nembe oil leak: Local incapacity worsens spills

The oil spill at the Santa Barbara oil field, OML 29, located in Nembe Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, has gone uncontained after three weeks because Nigeria lacks the capacity, the head of the government agency combating oil leaks has said.

Idris Musa, director-general, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), said this lack of capacity had seen oil companies invite foreign experts to assist in containing spills, a situation that leads to delay and worsens the spill.

In an interview with Arise TV on Wednesday, Idris said the 2011 Bonga spill could only be contained because international help came quickly due to Shell’s subscription to a service that cleans oil spills worldwide. In this case, Aiteo, who owns the facility from which the leaks emanated, did not subscribe to the service.

“Now, to get a foreign company to render this service, you have to sign contracts, negotiate terms and that will take some time,” Musa said.

The Bonga oil spill in 2011 reportedly sent over 40,000 barrels of oil into 20 riverine communities across Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and Delta states in Nigeria. It was only contained with the invitation of Oil Spill Response Limited (OSRL), the largest international industry-funded cooperative that exists to respond to oil spills wherever in the world.

OSRL, which provides preparedness, response and intervention services, is wholly owned by most of the environmentally responsible oil and gas companies, with membership representing the majority of global oil production. It currently employs 275 people across 12 locations around the world.

Aiteo issued a recent release saying it has engaged experts to assist in managing the spill. So far, the company’s spill response team as well as support from the NOSDRA, has managed to contain the spill from entering neighbouring communities but the main leaks are yet to be stopped.

The international team Aiteo is seeking to engage has since visited the site and conducted an aerial survey, but the main task of stopping the leaks has not started.

Read also: President Buhari laments oil spill in Bayelsa

However, the task of containing the spill is a bit complicated. According to Musa, the Nembe spill is unusual because it emanated from a non-operational well. The leaks, he said, are coming from the wellhead and so far, the response team has been unable to reach it.

“Nobody has gotten to the wellhead, the best you could do is to get close enough until the spill is stopped and nothing is coming out of the wellhead, then you can take a look and know the reason for the leak,” he said.

This renders void assumptions about how many barrels of oil may have been spilled.

Giving an insight into volumes of oil that may have leaked into the rivers, he said within eight hours, his team was able to recover 4,105 barrels of oil that had leaked. Over the course of three weeks, it is conceivable that thousands of oil barrels may have leaked from the facility.

OML 29 is predominantly a gas field with less than 20 percent oil hence posing even greater risks, as leaking methane is hazardous.

“It is time we start having the local capacity to contain this kind of spills,” said Musa.

This poor capacity has worsened oil leaks in recent times. Between 2010 and 2020, Nigeria lost 489,520.301 barrels of oil to leaks, according to data from NOSDRA. This is about 40 percent of Nigeria’s estimated current daily production.

In Ondo State, several oil wells were on fire for weeks in 2019, with the country lacking the capacity to put them out.

The danger to the mangroves, aquatic lives and the livelihoods of the host communities are usually enormous. Musa said it would take between 25 and 30 years for some of the trees to grow and the mangrove to regenerate and provide cover. Communities that depend on fishing will see a significant loss of income as the oil will kill the fishes.

However, some of the leaks have occurred due to the negligence of oil companies. The Trans Niger Pipeline (TNP), which belongs to the SPDC JV that carries crude oil from various companies, had over 56 illegal connections by smugglers that were removed last year.

There are still 42 illegal connections remaining that the company knows of and is battling to remove. Since 2017, SPDC has removed more than 689 illegal theft points. Illegal theft points are identified by daily inspections from the air and on the ground, according to Shell’s briefing notes for 2021.

According to the Federal Government, the NNPC spends over N60 billion yearly maintaining pipelines and other oil infrastructure destroyed by sabotage.

In the dizzying maze of delta creeks, oil thieves tap pipelines and siphon off crude through rubber hoses that are up to 2 kilometres long into barrels on small vessels. They sail alongside larger vessels and pump the stolen crude into oil tankers bound for exports mostly in Asia.

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