As the clean-up gets under way, the oil companies should learn to operate more responsibly

Notwithstanding the disappointing absence of President Muhammadu Buhari, it was still a momentous occasion last Thursday in Bodo, Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers State, when the federal government launched the implementation of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) report on the clean-up of Ogoniland. In his speech at the occasion delivered by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, the president said the clean-up of Ogoniland has sustainable development components that will greatly benefit the people.

“The methodology for the clean-up will ensure job creation for young people. The agro-allied industries required for processing of agricultural produce will also be put in place,” said President Buhari who added that approval had been given to establish the necessary institutional framework to drive the process.

The UNEP report which was submitted to former President Goodluck Jonathan on August 4, 2011, had recommended a scientific rectification of the environment in Ogoniland which is expected to take about 30 years to accomplish with an estimated take-off cost of $1 billion. The three-year investigation leading to the report had come up with the following revelations: One, there is heavy contamination of land and underground water courses, sometimes more than 40 years after oil was spilled. Two, that community drinking water contains dangerous concentrations of benzene and other pollutants.

Three, that there is massive evidence of soil contamination more than five metres deep in many areas studied. Four, most of the spill sites where oil firms claimed to have cleaned up are still highly contaminated. Five, there is clear evidence of oil firms dumping contaminated soil in unlined pits. Six, the water is coated with hydrocarbons more than 1,000 times the level allowed by drinking water standards. And lastly, that the endemic environmental crisis in Ogoniland is as a result of the failure by Shell and others oil firms to meet the minimum requirements of their own environmental standards.

While submitting the report of what happened in Ogoniland five years ago, Mr. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP, who was also present at the commencement of the clean-up last Thursday, said the study “offers a blueprint for how the oil industry and public authorities might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond at a time of increasing production and exploration across many parts of the continent”.

What that means in effect is that for such tragedies not to happen again, the federal government must begin to enforce the laws of the land in its dealings with oil companies. For instance, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA) Act of 1988 stipulates that “the licensee or lessee of an oil exploitation license or a mining lease must adhere to all standard global practices to prevent pollution of inland waters, rivers, water courses, the territorial waters of Nigeria or the high sea by oil and other harmful fluids or substances, and where any such pollution occurs or has occurred, take prompt steps to control and, if possible end it and restore the environment”.
However, because the relevant authorities don’t enforce such laws, oil companies operate in Nigeria not only with impunity but also with scant regard for our people or the environment. President Buhari alluded to this in his speech at the clean-up launch when he said: “There are acts, enactments, laws, guidelines and regulations to govern the operators of the oil industry. However, either because of lack of will or willful non-compliance with environmental laws, the environment has been put in jeopardy.”

While this is a serious indictment on our nation, with the commencement of the remediation process in Ogoniland, the Buhari administration is also sending a clear signal that it is a new day in Nigeria. It is important for the oil companies and other critical stakeholders in the sector to get the message.