Niger Delta: Inside world of crude oil theft, artisanal refiners

EBIOWEI LAWAL reports how the amalgam of oil spills, bunkering, and artisanal crude oil refining has contributed to both the environmental degradation and aggravated poverty of the Niger Delta region.

WHEN on January 15, 1956, Shell discovered crude oil in commercial quantity in Oloibiri, a community in Bayelsa State, many hoped that such would bring prosperity to the state and the larger impoverished Niger Delta region. This discovery, according to public records, ended 50 years of unsuccessful oil exploration by various companies and launched Nigeria into a petro-state.

Since then, the Niger Delta region has seen an influx of foreign energy companies seeking lucrative contracts, as Shell continued to discover more crude oil wells. In the beginning, the prospects in the emerging crude oil industry were high for the people of the region. The people of the crude oil-rich Niger Delta whose primary means of livelihood was farming and fishing abandoned their original means of livelihood and hoped for white-collar jobs and many other benefits that come with being a host to crude oil exploration giants, like Shell and Agip.

Of oil spills and environmental degradation

In decades of crude oil exploration and extraction activities, several communities were evicted from their farm lands to make way for ground support for pipelines. In 2011, Shell reported that it recorded 1,010 spills in the Niger Delta, with 110, 535 barrels of crude oil spilled into the environment, while Agip, in 2014, claimed that it recorded 820 spills, with 26, 286 barrels spilled into the environment.

But the Nigerian government disagreed, saying Shell recorded 1,369 spills while Agip recorded 1,659 spills under that period.

However, Shell admitted that “most of the facilities were constructed between the 1960s and early 1980s to the then prevailing standards” but alleged sabotage as the major cause of most of the crude oil spills in the region. And recent studies have proven this to be true. Pipeline sabotage, an act performed primarily through what is known as Kpo-Fire (bunkering or artisanal refining), whereby the saboteur taps the pipeline and steals crude oil for local refining purposes. In the process, the pipeline is damaged thereby spilling crude oil into the environment.

On many occasions, damaged lines may go unnoticed for days, and their repairs may take even longer. Investigations have shown that Kpo-Fire has become a big business, with the stolen crude oil quickly making its way to the black market.

Shell in its 2019 Briefing Note explained that 11, 000 barrels of crude oil was stolen from its facilities per day, contributing to 57 per cent of crude oil spills in 2018. In the Briefing Note, Shell further revealed that oil spills due to crude oil theft and sabotage of facilities as well as illegal refining caused the most environmental damage from oil operations in the Niger Delta.

These concerns have led non-governmental organisations like Mac-Jim Foundation to join the call for multinational oil companies to support and strengthen environmental governance by adopting safer crude oil production technologies.

What is Kpo-Fire?

Mr. Kiente Zion, a youth from Peremabiri in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, who was involved in the business for many years and has become a change agent due to awareness and personal experience of the dangers in the business, told Nigerian Tribune that “the word Kpo-Fire is the local name for artisanal crude oil refining or crude oil bunkering. It is an alternative way of refining crude oil, away from the generally known way of doing it, and getting the same result.

“When you talk about the proper way of refining crude oil at the refinery where it goes through the different stages of production, they get different products like Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), gas, diesel and many more. But when you come to our Kpo-fire level, we also take the crude oil from one stage to another but there is a limit to how far we can go in the process. However, the kerosene and PMS that we get, when placed side by side with the one gotten from the conventional refinery, it could be difficult for the ordinary man to identify the difference.”

The chairman of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Mr. Confidence Mac-Eteli defined bunkering and artisanal refining as “a practice of crude oil collection and refining with low technology for personal income generation that creates more harm to the environment.”

He further explained that the process was a major source of uncontrolled crude oil spills in the Niger Delta, and that in the practice, there was no form of compensation to communities or families when water sources and farmlands were polluted.

Secretary, Nembe City Youth Congress in Nembe Local Government Area, Ibirimo Onaimi Obiene told Nigerian Tribune that “people living within Nembe have to work hard for their survival. The international oil companies operating in our communities bring lots of strangers to work for them, leaving the indigenes jobless.

“The strangers that came to work in Nembe had knowledge of the Kpo-fire but could not operate without the support of indigenes, so they started recruiting our young men and women into the business. And because there is a need to be self-reliant, our people fell for it and joined forces with them and started Kpo-fire in Nembe.

“The exploration and exploitation activities of International Oil Companies (IOCs) within our area have caused lots of damage to our environment whereby the traditional means of survival of the people were threatened. For instance, in the past people used to go fishing and get good cash. So because of the consistent equipment failure on the part of IOCs, crude oil constantly spills0 into the environment and threatens the means of livelihood of the people.”

In his own account, Mr. Josiah Eriye, a former Community Development Committee (CDC) chairman of Igbomotoru community in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area stated that “it all started when our community had an internal crisis in 2005, so as a result of that, people fled.

“And by 2009 when the crisis was over, some persons introduced the kpo-fire business. And it would shock you to know that the community crisis started as a result of an oil company’s politics. The then youth president was given a contract to clear the site for a new drilling station and provide security as well.

“And at the same time, the contract was also awarded to another contractor. That was how the clash of interest began and eventually turned into a full blown war between the two parties, and the community became the waterfront for the two rivals.

“Meanwhile, as they were fighting, the oil company went on with the work and commenced drilling peacefully. In the process, nine persons died and many houses were burnt down. But today we thank God there is peace now.”

Explaining why and how he joined the Kpo-Fire business, Mr Kientei said “At that time when I joined the business, I had nowhere to work and being a man I had to provide for my family.

“If you talk of infrastructural development in our communities, we enjoy zero per cent compared to the northern, western and eastern parts of Nigeria, meanwhile the wealth that drives development comes from the Niger Delta.”

Giving more insight into their operations, Mr. Kientei said “while I was in the business, our operations were divided, in the sense that there were persons whose business was to source for crude oil. And there is a strong union that runs that sector; it is organised in such a way that they are not allowed to open camps to refine the crude oil.

“As for me, I belonged to the unit of refining, so we were not allowed to source for the crude oil. What I did was to go to the crude oil dealers with a boat; they would then load it with drums of crude oil. For a boat that could contain 30 drums, it would cost you N50,000.

“After refining those 30 drums, we could get 25 drums of diesel worth N250,000; six drums of kerosene worth N30,000 and 20 drums of PMS worth N150, 000 in the black market. We also have a unit that was responsible for the distribution of this product into the open market.

“That is why I keep telling people that this business is more than what meets the eye. The Federal Government-licensed persons to buy refined products from overseeing because our refineries are not working efficiently to meet the demands of our huge population. Now, these importers look at the foreign trip to buy these products as a waste of time and resources. Also for the fact that such trip would not give them much profit, and considering that the imported products are not better than what is refined locally. The products we refine locally are not exported. So ask yourself, where do they go to? They go into the Nigerian system.”

How Kpo-fire activities degrade farms, water bodies, cause climate change

According to the Bayelsa State AFAN chairman, “Kpo-fire has really affected farming business in Bayelsa. Aquaculture has suffered a lot of setbacks because of kpo-fire activities. Even crops don’t yield much these days. When they carry out their activities, most of the crude oil spill into the environment and most of the wastes that come out after refining are thrown into the river; this is not healthy for marine life.

“In the Niger Delta, the major cause of climate change is kpo-fire because as we know, there are no refineries in our area. Though we have gas being flared, the carbon that is released into the atmosphere is very high in addition to the kpo-fire. Instead of converting the gas for domestic use, they flare the gas and when kpo-fire came, it made matters worse.”

Mr. Oburo Samuel, the CDC chairman, Kalaba Community in Yenagoa Local Government Area, told Nigerian Tribune that “In Kalaba Community, we don’t have artisanal refining camps. What we have is pipeline vandalism. In our area, youths usually sabotage pipelines to frustrate the operation of pipeline surveillance contractors, hoping they would get the contract from the company.”

‘Many youths have lost their lives while illicitly refining crude oil’

Sharing one of his near-death experiences at his kpo-fire camp, Kientei said “I remember that one of my boys working for me was with me in the camp. Towards the cool of the day, as I was about to leave the camp, I told him to put out the fire when he was tired.

“When I got back to the village, I had not even had my bath when I received a call that my camp had been burnt down. I was told that my boy got burnt as well but luckily he survived and continued working until I finally left the business. But it was a dangerous business because lots of young men die in the process.”

In Igbomotoru, Mr Eriye said “when kpo-fire was in force, the activities were so bad that the water from our rivers could not be used for anything because the entire water had been polluted. I remember that after washing and you hung your clothes to dry, by the time you returned, the clothes would have black stains. A lot of persons then suffered from respiratory tract infections.”

Curbing the menace

The Mac Jim Foundation has been mobilising the Ministry of Environment, civil society organisations and communities to strengthen community capacity to advance environmental protection and management, environmental governance and justice, and alternative livelihood.

During one of such stakeholders’ interactions in Yenagoa, it was established that there is a paradigm shift in the collaboration between government ministries, departments and agencies and civil society in Bayelsa State, in the campaign against artisanal refining, saying youths in the region are ready to stop artisanal refining for agriculture.

While presenting a paper, Mrs Beketin Taiwo, a staff of the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources, identified massive pollution of the environment by the spilling of oil into the land and water, inadequate access to markets and inadequate research and extension services as major challenges of agricultural business in the state.

The convener and founder of Mac-Jim Foundation, Godson Jim-Dorgu, took participants through vivid experiences from his many years of research on ways to end kpo-fire in the state, saying that the trajectory of development should involve communities in the decision-making process of governance and empowering human resources development to enhance community-driven sustainable development.

He said “as an organisation, we envision a society where civic engagement for alternative solutions are valued and practised by all people in service for the common good of all. And at the same time improve the quality of life in our target communities, by supplying leadership skills and alternative solutions that promote sustainable development and community actions that advance democracy and good governance.”

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