OIL POLITICS: Many blind spots

OIL POLITICS: Many blind spots

A major problem
with the Nigerian oil industry can be traced to its regulatory
mechanisms. While we should assume that such mechanisms could actually
help secure efficient operations of the sector, they have led the
sector into more murky waters.

For a number of
years, the Nigerian president doubled as the minister of petroleum.
Busy on many fronts, a number of issues must have gone without strict
oversight. Because the president was also the minister, the office had
more powers assigned to it. Some experts believe that because of this
setting, the minister of petroleum was allowed wide scope for
discretion and decision-making powers, without commensurate systems of
review and accountability.

The sector is
disparately regulated, mainly from the Ministry of Environment and that
of Petroleum. How coherent these two perform and how their powers
overlap or synergise are issues for another day. But there are many
areas we ought to worry about. One area of concern is that the oil
sector has created some of the most critical environmental and health
problems for the Niger Delta and the entire nation.

Who is the
governmental watchdog for the Nigerian environment? The answer to that
question may seem obvious. Do you say it is the ministry of
environment? You would be right. But that would be only to a point.

When we had a
Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA) as a subset of the
Federal Ministry of Environment, the answer would have been right to a
larger extent than it is now. After the demise of FEPA, another agency
with a suspiciously long name emerged in 2007. We are talking of the
National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency

Let me confess that
I had to visit their website to be sure I got that name right! The
duties of NESREA, as stated in the Act by which it was set up, are
lofty and should build confidence in the agency. However, there are two
key areas that raise serious concern. And they are related.

First area of
concern is the composition of the governing council of the agency.
Article 3 (viii) of the NESREA Act of 2007 specifies a membership slot
in the council for a representative of the oil exploratory and
production companies in Nigeria.

Why, we ask, is
this space created for the oil companies to regulate our Nigerian
environment? We note that apart from a slot allowed for the
Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), there is a provision for
the Minister of Environment to appoint “three other persons to
represent public interest.” There is no clue in the Act as to who these
three would be and on what basis the minister would select them. Would
there be representatives of fishers, farmers, or pastoralists? Would
there be youth whose future we are already squandering?

We have picked on
the objectionable inclusion of the oil corporations in the regulation
of our environment because these entities, while baking the petrodollar
pie, are also guilty of causing severe damage to the environment and to
the psyche of our peoples.

The submission of
this writer is that the oil companies should be in the dock and not on
the bench in hallowed chambers of environmental and sundry justice.
What they have done in the oil communities is nothing short of criminal.

The second issue,
which, as already mentioned, relates to the first objection above, is
the stipulation of Article 7 (d) of the NESREA Act. This section states
that the agency shall “enforce compliance with regulations on the
importation, exportation, production, distribution, storage, sale, use,
handling and disposal of hazardous chemicals and waste other than in
the oil and gas sector.”

It is clear from
the above that a factor has been inserted here to confer a certain
status on the oil companies that keeps them away from being regulated
by an agency that sets environmental standards in Nigeria and which is
supposed to enforce regulations in the land.

With the biggest
environmental abuser excluded from the purview of NESREA, the agency
must be truly and fully handicapped to play the role it ought to play
in regulating the environment. Consider what it would mean if the
United States FEPA had no say about how oil companies handle and
dispose of chemicals and wastes in the oil and gas sector.

This exclusion from
regulation of the oil companies is shocking and scandalous. However,
what makes it more objectionable is the fact that these companies,
which continue to commit heinous environmental and human rights abuses
in the oil fields and communities, are also elevated to the seat of
judgement over other lesser polluters of the Nigerian environment.

This is a sad
commentary on environmental regulation in Nigeria. It is unacceptable
and needs urgent re-examination and correction. A very basic tenet of
justice holds that an offender cannot be a judge in his own case. The
unholy wedlock between regulatory agencies and the oil and gas
companies is ripe for a divorce.

Perhaps, you will
tell us that there are other agencies that regulate the oil and gas
companies. You could list the Directorate of Petroleum Resources as
one. That would make a good joke if you were on a comedy train. The DPR
that is unable to tell us how much oil is extracted from the wells and
keeps a blind eye or raises hands controlled by political levers cannot
take the place of a central environmental regulatory agency.

NESREA needs urgent attention to help close the dangerous gaps created by her blind spots.

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