Flares darken villagers' prospects

Residents complain of burning excess natural gas, which pollutes air, wastes energy


December 17, 2006|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

EBOCHA, Nigeria -- It is 9 p.m. in this Niger Delta town, but it is as bright as the sunniest day. The air is even warmer than the usual warm, muggy nights that drape the delta. The sources of the heat and light are four towers of fire rocketing 50 feet or more into the sky, night and day, as they have for more than 30 years.

The four flares are part of an oil facility that belongs to the Italian oil company Agip. They sit just off the main road running through Ebocha, with a Nigerian army checkpoint at either side. Agip's corporate trademark seems appropriate: a six-legged dog breathing fire over one shoulder.

When crude oil is pumped out, natural gas is usually present. Where there is no oil field machinery to capture the gas or if the market for it is weak, much of this gas is "flared," or burned into the atmosphere. For the past half-century, such flames have cast eerie glows across the delta.

Aside from polluting the air with greenhouse gases and other emissions, the process wastes huge amounts of energy. The 24 billion cubic meters burned in 2004 in Nigeria accounted for 16 percent of gas flared globally and more than half flared in Africa. If used as fuel by power plants, the natural gas burned off in African oil fields could nearly double the electricity generated in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa.

Flaring, a rarity in developed oil-producing countries, has declined under a government call to end the practice by 2008. Four years ago, 40 percent of all so-called "associated gas" in Nigeria was flared, down from 70 percent a decade ago. Much is being piped to the coast for export.

Bent Svensson, manager of the World Bank's Global Gas Flaring Reduction program, calls the percentage decline "a good development." "However," he said, "in absolute volumes the decline has been much smaller because oil production has gone up."

Residents of Ebocha say the endless flames began in the 1970s with one flare. Farmers living nearby, tied to the land, could not easily move.

Today it is as if four suns have become stuck on the horizon, unable to rise or set. The rumbling and hissing sound like a massive waterfall, nearly drowning out a symphony of croaking frogs hidden in brush just beyond the lifeless hot sand that fans out from the flames. Birds fly in slow circles, scanning for insects drawn to the light.

The flares tinge the sky over the patio of Oge Restaurant a mile away. There, Uche Noyemetu, 31, described what it was like to grow up in a place where concrete houses cracked in the heat. A decade ago his family managed to move a few miles away. Even at that remove, rain hitting the zinc roof turns black as charcoal. The only benefit he sees is that Agip supplied electricity to the town.

Another restaurant patron, Onyeju Celestine, 49, lives more than two miles away but says beetles attracted by the flares eat his yam crops. Others say the heat harms staple crops such as cassava. Although there is debate about flaring's effect on crops, Celestine and others insist their once-abundant fields have yielded smaller bounties since the flares began.

How much longer they will continue to burn is a mystery. Agip, through its officials in Nigeria and Italy, did not reply to a series of questions about Ebocha.

Chief Victus Jonah, Ebocha's traditional ruler, explained the dilemma: "You can't leave the land your forefathers gave you. If you do that, you trespass on another man's land. No choice but to stay."

Jonah worked for Agip for 23 years as a boat captain and received a gold watch for his service, along with a framed certificate that hangs on the wall of his sitting room. One of his sons works for an Agip contractor. The chief's ties to the company do not stop him from criticizing it for what he says is pollution of the air and failing to send a doctor to treat people's ailments. Nor, he says, has Agip done enough to fund area schools.

Without a trace of irony, he said, wringing his hands, "We are in darkness."


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