Mr. Goodluck Opiah was an ex-Speaker of Imo House of Assembly, and a former Federal Lawmaker that represented Ohaji/Egbema/Oguta/Oru West Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives. Today, he is the Coordinator of Imo State oil and gas sector. In this interview with AMBY UNEZE, he gave deep insight into the emerging oil and gas development in the State. Excerpt:
Since you became the Coordinator of Imo State oil and gas sector in Imo State, the state has had two international conferences on oil and gas, the most recent was the gas expansion conference organised by the Ministry of Petroleum Resources coupled with the fact that the state has the highest gas deposit in West Africa, what is the whole idea of all these?
Imo state has been an oil producing state and much of that has been on exploration, exploitation of crude oil. Crude oil was the in-thing since the 1950s when the first oil well was struck in Iho Dimeze, Imo state, though that was not in commercial quantity and Shell continued the exploration in the parts of Niger Delta and part of the South West region and finally found oil in commercial quantity at Olobiri in the present Bayelsa state. Oil has been found at that time in parts of Imo state, in Egbema, Oguta, Ohaji. Crude oil was the main stay of Nigerian economy. That has been the case until recently when the emphasis on crude became a reduced issue and attention started moving from crude oil to gas. The global trend has necessitated the oil companies to start looking out for gas and good for us, Imo has been blessed with abundant of gas deposit.
While exploration for crude were going on, a lot of oil wells that were drilled were with high contents of gas deposit and of course the emphasis as at that time was not on gas but on crude, so such wells were capped. I suspect also that what happened in Iho Dimeze were wells with deposit of gas. I have had the opportunity to interact with stakeholders in oil and gas industry and I’m canvassing that such wells should be revisited. So oil companies are coming back to explore, and exploit gas. We are lucky that we have abundant of gas deposit fully explored now in Ohaji/Egbema local government in a place called Assa.
On the summits, there were two different levels; the first one was powered by the Nigerian Gas Aggregation Company Ltd for the entire South East. It was intended to bring all stakeholders in the oil and gas sector together to brainstorm on the possible involvement in the sector in the e area of investment. That summit brought a lot of our businessmen in the Diaspora to participate through the zoom. The recent one was actually on sensitising our people on the various utility avenue of gas. It was powered by the National Gas Expansion programme under the Ministry of Petroleum Resources. The programme was kicked off by the Honourabe Minister of Petroleum Resources, Chief Timipre Slyva. They are quite enriching and our people have come to realise that what we have been using petrol and diesel to operator can now be operated on gas. For instance, we have gas for cooking, to operate our generators, vehicles, trucks, buses, even to operate our Keke on the road; our people have been encouraged to begin to diversify from depending much on crude oil by-products of petrol, diesel, and kerosene to gas utilisation. It is quite economical. Talking about the economic benefits of our endowment in gas, we are not there yet, but at the moment the companies are at the level of building up the plants. There are series of fabrication works at Assa North by the oil companies, the AJPC predominantly by the Nigerian Gas Company in collaboration with Seplat Oil on one hand and Shell Development Company on another.
It is expected that between now and next year, the production will start and then the major economic benefits of that exercise would begin to be seen in Imo in terms of full employment of our teeming youths and increased investments in businesses across the world in petrochemical, refinery, and all forms of industrialisation. We have mapped out areas for industrial clusters in Imo, keeping everything ready, by providing infrastructure in those areas with a view to attracting investors and making business environment conducive for possible investors. I think I will say we are blessed as Imo people. I thank God for blessing our land with gas and oil and we hope that the larger benefits would be such that Imo would be properly positioned as a major gas and oil producing state in the country. We have not been fairly treated properly over the years in spite of our contributions to the national economy until recently we were rated as one of the lowest oil producing states in Nigeria, but thank God with the advent of Governor Hope Uzodimma, efforts have been made to reclaim some of our oil wells that were hitherto ceded to River State. A total of about 18 oil wells have been recovered now and that would go a long way to shore up our standing as an oil producing state. I guess we may end up being the fourth highest oil producing state in this country. We are already the biggest gas producing state in the country and there is no reason we can’t be economically strong with sound leadership that Senator Hope Uzodimma is exhibiting.
When you talked about the sensitisation and the gas expansion project engineered by the federal government, I know that many investors are interested especially those coming from Lagos and Port Harcourt axis, but one major thing they keep talking about is lack of infrastructure, how do we improve on this as a State?
From the day of the inauguration of Senator Hope Uzodimma as the governor of Imo state, he set out to rehabilitate the infrastructure needs of the state, and you can agree with me that he has done quite a lot within the short period of time. Solid roads are being built from Owerri to Orlu, Owerri to Okigwe and within Owerri. Indeed, Owerri, the capital city has begun to reclaim its beauty, in terms of quality road infrastructure. Apart from road construction, the governor has also created a new ministry of power that is intended to put energy in place for Imo people and investors. One of the problems that will be threatening investment is security which is now a national issue and the government is doing everything possible to make sure that insecurity does not become a challenge in Imo. The recent jailbreak and attack of the police formation was an attempt to distract and blackmail the government. This is not far from the handiwork of people who are not happy with the rapid development in Imo. However, government is doing everything possible to curb the issue of insecurity in the state. A lot is being done in the government circle and the issue of security is not supposed to be publicized. But Imo will be sanitised.
On a large scale, Investors are also being invited to participate in infrastructure development and a lot of them are quite willing. I know a company like Seplat has indicated interest to partner the state in terms of infrastructure development. There is a clear deal which the governor is very willing and ready to fast-track. There are other oil companies like Watersmith Petroman Nigeria Limited – the company that delivered the first private refinery in Nigeria at Ohaji. That refinery is expected to increase traffic between Umuapu and Obigwe in Awara (where the refinery is located). At the moment the road is in a very poor state. I am aware that Watersmith is partnering Shell Development Company Limited to daulize that road – about 25 kilometres from Port Harcourt – Owerri expressway at Umuapu junction to the company site. That is the kind of expectation government wants from her partners. There are many oil companies operating in Imo, and if they show interest in the state as much as the government is doing that would complement a lot and Imo would be fully developed and we will all be happy for it.
On oil bunkering and other related oil thefts, are there anything government and the oil companies are doing to curtail the menace?
Sincerely speaking, we have a major challenge in that regard. Oil facilities are vandalised, crude oil thieves are in the creeks where they set up their illegal refineries everywhere by unpatriotic Nigerians who do not mean well for our state and country. For us in Imo, it is quite disturbing because it also affects our economy much as our output reduces our contribution to the national overall production of oil which is one of the indices for allocation of funds to the states, particularly to the oil producing states. But we are not resting on our oars. Here, we have set up committees on anti-bunkering in Ohaji, Egbema, Oguta, Izombe areas. There are two different types of bunkering: bunker products that move from Imo and out and the one that affects us much are the ones that take place in Imo where oil pipelines are broken and crude oil are siphoned illegally and are refined at private illegal refineries at remote areas.
Government is very worried and efforts are being made to curb it. Arrests are being made now and then. The security agencies are also partnering government and oil companies to tackle this menace. Many of these illegal refineries are destroyed daily and the more they shift base elsewhere. I have talked to our people to watch what our children do. The illegal refineries are very dangerous venture to embark on. The refining is crude because the method is crude; there is no clear knowledge of the manipulation. Many times there is explosion in the bush leading to loss of lives of our young boys. So such incidents are major loses to the society, to family, to the economy and to Imo state. We as government are concerned and we will do everything to stop it. Though, it is being run by strong, wealthy cartels that are well equipped, connected, sometimes with sophisticated weapons using our people to partner with them.
There is the issue of environmental degradation around the oil producing communities which the oil companies create and refuses to assuage the sufferings of these communities, what are the efforts from government angle to remedy these anomalies?
The oil exploration, exploitation has brought so much hardship to the host communities. The oil companies have not shown any sense of responsiveness by putting back to the communities what they get from there. Before the advent of oil as the mainstay of Nigerian economy, most people in the oil communities were farmers, fishermen and hunters. Those formed their bases of livelihood and a lot of them were rich from their farm produce. The crude oil production has affected all those sources of living in many ways. The soil fertility is completely eroded and can no longer produce quality and quantity of foodstuff like yam, cassava, corn, etc. The environmental degradation has also affected our rivers, ponds, and other forms for water where fishermen go to fish. Today, a lot of species of fish are no longer in our water. You can hardly find any fish by our fishermen to harvest, sell and make an income. It is very disturbing that in spite of all these challenges, oil companies are not even giving our people employment, no reasonable form of empowerment at least to compensate those losses in their environment, coupled with the hazards that associates with pollution and health issues. We sometimes think that oil brought more curses to us than blessings because if you look around in the oil producing communities you can hardly see any form of development, any reason to be happy that God endowed us with abundant natural resources like oil and minerals.
Past administration in the state did nothing to engage the oil companies to develop the oil communities, but I’m happy that the administration of Senator Hope Uzodimma has started to address the issue. He is quite an experienced person in the oil and gas sector and he has brought his experience to bear in the governance of Imo state and is engaging the oil companies to sit up to their responsibilities. There is a particular oil company that operated in Agwa in 2007/2008 without any visible thing to show that the people are hosting an oil company. There was no memorandum of understanding (MoU) to guarantee some benefits to the host communities. Today, they have been compelled to develop a MoU with their host communities in Agwa. There are three major communities: Mgballa, Umukpo and Umuofeke. One of the major things we want the oil company to do for the people is to give them electricity. It will be on record that under Senator Hope Uzodimma the jinx is broke that government compelled the oil company to do what they were not used to do for the communities. So the narratives have begun to change.
I understand government is going to establish Imo State Petroleum Development Company?
Imo state has had Imo state Petroleum Development Company between 1999 or thereabout but it was kept in the drawers. In 2009, Governor Ikedi Ohakim dusted it and moved the share capital from N10 million to N500 million and he was ready to use it in partnership with Oak Refinery of United States of America to establish a refinery in Egbema. Land was provided and arrangement was in top gear before that administration came to an end. For eight years, the administration of Rochas Okorocha did not do anything in that regard. Now one of the earliest thing our governor, Hope Uzodimma did when he came on board was to resuscitate that company and increased the share capital to about N500 million and corrected all the wrong things with the company. Then, we bided for a marginal oil field and passed through all the rigours and I am happy to announce that the NNPC, through the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) has granted us a marginal oil field called “Ihioma”. Today, we are proud owner of an oil company as Imo people and very soon that oil company will come operational.