“The flames of Shell are flames of hell
We bask below their light
Nought for us serve the blight
Of cursed neglect and cursed Shell”

– Ogoni Protest Song circa 1970

Gas Flares in NigeriaFor nearly fifty years Shell has been flaring gas in Nigeria. These huge dirty, smoky plumes of pollution roar constantly across the Niger Delta. They affect the health of the local communities, they poison the air and light up the night sky.  The flares have also been one of the biggest single contributors globally to climate change over the decades.

The gas could have been collected and used and made billions of dollars for the Nigerians. Instead it has been burnt, needlessly. To the communities, the flares are a constant reminder of the double standards being employed by the oil companies who would never operate like that back home in Europe or the United States.

For the villagers living next to such degrading noise, air and heat pollution, flares cause chronic health problems.  A ground-breaking study by Environmental Rights Action and the Climate Justice Programme has tried to quantify the damage gas flaring does in emitting a toxic cocktail of pollutants.

The potentially lethal combination of chemicals goes far beyond heat and soot, including particulate matter, sulphur and nitrogen dioxides, benzene, toluene, xylene and dioxins. It estimated that in one region alone in the Niger Delta, flaring is statistically likely to cause 49 premature deaths, 5,000 respiratory illnesses among children and some 120,000 asthma attacks and 8 additional causes of cancer each year.

By 1984, flaring had been made technically illegal, but the companies could get around the law by paying a penalty or fine. This angered Ken Saro-Wiwa, who wrote in 1992:

“As a final remark of their genocidal intent and insensitivity to human suffering, Shell and Chevron refuse to obey a Nigerian law which requires all oil companies to re-inject gas into the earth rather than flare it. Shell and Chevron think it cheaper to poison the atmosphere and the Ogoni and pay the paltry penalty imposed by the government of Nigeria than re-inject the gas as stipulated by the regulations.”

By the early nineties the role that flaring contributed to climate change was also beginning to be realised. It was one of the main issues of concern in a Memorandum of the “Rivers Chiefs and Peoples Conference” for the Earth Summit in Rio. It not only complained of the “air pollution from the oil industry’s emissions and flares day and night,” but also “wonders how much Nigeria, through the operations of the oil companies, has contributed to the ‘greenhouse effect’, global warming”.

In the mid-nineties according to Shell about 1,000 cubic feet (30 cubic metres) of associated gas was being produced with each barrel of oil that reached the surface,  meaning that 1,000 million standard cf/d or 28.6 million cubic metres per day was being flared.   The World Bank estimated that flaring was responsible for 35 million tons of CO2 with 12 million tonnes of methane produced from Rivers and Delta States alone.

By now, Shell knew that gas flaring was the main ecological issue facing its subsidiary in Nigeria.  But despite a decade of promises by the company that the flares would end by 2005,  then 2008,  then 2009, the flares have never gone out. And it looks like they never will as long as the oil flows.

The oil companies including Shell are now lobbying to push the deadline back to 2011 and even 2013.  Even the chances of the flares being extinguished by 2013 are looking remote, if not impossible to achieve. A recent in-depth article for the Stakeholder Democracy Network, published in early 2009, and written by Chris Cragg, a specialised energy journalist, argued that the time-tables for ending flaring are nonsense.

“In practice, the level of investment required, plus the length of time needed to put in place the kind of projects thought by the Government to solve the problem [of gas flaring], make nonsense of any strict timetable or legal fiat,” Cragg argues.

Unless radical alternative solutions are found, such as using the gas locally, Cragg argues it could be decades before the flares are out. They may continue for as long as oil production does.

And so this climate catastrophe continues. Nigeria is still flaring approximately 22 billion cubic metres of gas a year, the equivalent of gas supply for 23 Washington DC’s or 30 per cent of the UK’s North Sea gas production.  Despite all the promises in the last ten years by Shell and others, the amount of gas flared in Nigeria has slightly gone up, according to OPEC. In 1998 it was 20.9 billion cubic metres, compared to the 22 billion cubic metres now.

From Shell Guilty