Onwuka Nzeshi and Dele Ogbodo in Abuja
The Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) has again reached a critical point in the National Assembly following last week's refusal by the Senate to commence debate on the general principles of the bill and pass it through the second reading.
The bill, which seeks for comprehensive reforms in the oil and gas sector, faced a similar challenge in the House of Representatives a couple of months ago.
The lower chamber of the parliament, however, surmounted the obstacles on the path of the bill through political horse-trading and compromise. The bill is currently with a special ad hoc committee headed by the Chief Whip of the House, Hon. Mohammed Bawa.
The fresh opposition against the bill was championed mainly by senators of Northern extraction who perceive the bill as discriminatory and skewed against non-oil bearing regions, particularly states of the defunct Northern Nigeria.
The Secretary, Northern Senators' Forum, Senator Ahmed Lawan (ANPP/Yobe), yesterday gave insight into the issues behind the opposition to the bill in the upper chamber of the National Assembly.
Lawan disclosed that the legislators were against the bill because it contained certain clauses that gave too much power to any sitting Minister of Petroleum Resources.
He said the lawmakers were also unhappy with the provisions in the bill in respect of the Petroleum Host Community Fund.
According to him, the proposed fund was another ploy by those who conceived the bill to allocate more funds to the oil producing states in the Niger Delta, even when these states currently take home so much through the 13 per cent derivation and the Niger Delta Development Commission.
Lawan debunked speculations that the Northern senators were trying to scuttle the passage of the PIB and insisted that the concerns being raised against the PIB were geared towards making the bill better to work for every part of Nigeria, including the non-oil producing states.
“I want to say that there is no senator who is not from the oil producing states that would like to see that bill passed as it is. This bill may be passed but it has to be given a very sound and solid legislative surgical operation.
“You cannot pass a bill in which most parts of Nigeria that are not part of the oil producing states will be shortchanged; you cannot a pass a bill in which the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, appropriates enormous, unnecessary and unwarranted powers to her office; you cannot pass a bill that the minister will have quasi-legislative powers in which the minister can change the provisions of the law.
“Whether it is Northern senators or any senator from any part of Nigeria which is not oil producing, I’m sure we will have to work on it properly and make it a pan-Nigerian bill to make it work for every part of Nigeria and make it profitable to the public and private sector,” Lawan said.
In an exclusive interview with THISDAY, Chairman, Senate Committee on Rules and Business, Senator Ita Enang (PDP/Akwa Ibom), also disagreed with the insinuations that there was a deliberate plot in the senate to scuttle the bill.
Enang, who had scheduled the bill for its second reading, disclosed that the suspension of the bill had more to do with the urgency of the 2013 budget and the mood of the upper chamber after the recent helicopter crash in Bayelsa State.
“You remember that we had made an earlier announcement as to when we were going to take the bill and that we were committing some days to the bill.
“Now on Tuesday, the 18th of December, there was this unfortunate incident of the helicopter crash a few days earlier and we considered, therefore, that it would be wrong to take that bill that day.
“We lost Nigerians in that crash and so we just introduced it and left it for Wednesday. However, the mood of the senate changed and other things that happened did not allow us to take the bill on Thursday. We had to dedicate that day to the Appropriation Bill and the closure for recess.
“So I don’t believe that anybody insinuating that there is a deliberate plot to derail the PIB is right. I want to assure you that we will take that bill as soon as we return,” Enang said.
Expressing the same optimism, the Chairman, House Committee on Inter-Parliamentary Relations, Hon. Daniel Reyenieju, said the PIB would surmount the current hurdles it is facing in the senate.
Reyenieju, a member of the House ad hoc committee working on the PIB, recalled that the same fears being expressed by some senators were the same issues raised by some Northern legislators when the bill was presented for second reading in the lower chamber.
He explained that the bill scaled through the same uncertainty stage as soon as the House resolved to include the National Frontier Exploration Agency in the PIB.
The proposed agency was conceived by some Northern legislators as their own joker to the perceived marginalisation of the Northern region in the oil and gas sector.
When established, the agency will be dedicated to the exploration of hydrocarbon resources in the Lake Chad Basin, Benue Trough, Bauchi Trough, Sokoto Basin and other parts of the North believed to have oil deposits.
“I believe that we have done what we need to do and have taken everybody on board. The PIB is no longer in danger in the House. We have met at the committee a couple of times to strategise and when we return, we shall hold a public hearing on the bill.
“The only thing that will happen is that we will use the public hearing to address the issues raised by our colleagues during the debate on the bill,” Reyenieju said.
Chairman, House Committee on Federal Capital Territory, Hon. Emmanuel Jime (PDP/Benue), also explained that there was really no need for any part of the country to kick against the PIB on the premise of being oil bearing or not.
Jime said that it would be myopic for any region to oppose the bill on account of not producing oil today as oil could be found in places without oil in the near future.