John O. Ifediora.

In all oil producing countries in Africa, a major source of lethal environmental pollutants derive from flaring of natural gas. On the landscapes of these countries, dotted with oil drilling equipments, plumes of smoke incessantly belch into the atmosphere serving notice of their nasty consequences. When crude oil is pumped out of the ground it is accompanied by natural gas, which in turn contains contaminants such as Hydrogen Sulphide and Carbon Dioxide. But since natural gas is not the primary object of drilling, the accompanying gas is flared or burnt. However, combustion converts Hydrogen Sulphide into Sulphur Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide that produce acid rain, and other harmful contaminants such as Benzene, Carbon Disulphide, soot and ash. Benzene has been long established as a cancer causing agent, and Carbon Disulphide is classified as a poison that damages the central nervous system. Once emitted into the air, these chemicals mix with precipitation in the atmosphere to form acid (acid rain) with devastating effects on humans, livestock, farmlands, rivers and the lives they sustain.

Saudi Arabia and other forward-looking countries with vast reserves of oil and natural gas have implemented measures that capture natural gas and convert them into commercial uses. When properly harnessed and processed, natural gas can be an efficient source of energy for household cooking, cooling of homes, and electric generation. Figures from the World bank show that Nigeria, second to Russia in the volume of natural gas flared annually, burns off 1.8 Billion dollars worth of natural gas every year; if harnessed, this would be more than sufficient to satisfy the country’s demand for electricity. Regrettably flaring is a practice that stems from both economic rationale, and bureaucratic indifference – it is much economically cheaper for oil companies to flare natural gas than to install the infrastructure necessary to capture, process, and deliver the final product to households and commercial users; and African governments are unwilling, for self-serving purposes, to encourage and subsidize such endeavors. The unfortunate outcome of this misalignment of incentive and practice is a global emission of 280 – 295 million tons of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere every year, thus accounting for slightly over 2% of global carbon emissions.

Given the clear consensus of scientists on the contributions of carbon emissions to global warming, and the growing evidence of its harmful effects on national eco-systems, why is flaring of natural gas still in practice? Why are oil corporations still allowed to pollute and degrade the environment in which they operate? But most importantly, why are governments less interested in curbing the practice by imposing strict regulations and hefty fines high enough to make flaring economically unsustainable? In the context of these questions, it must be understood that Nigeria, the second largest emitter of carbon from flaring, passed a law in 1984 to curb such practice. But it is one thing to have regulatory laws on the books, and quite another to enforce them. Since the law was put in place, Nigeria has, arguably, halved its carbon emission beginning in 1996, but in spite of this the annual economic loss from flaring remains staggering, and this is beside the deadly toll on its citizens who live in and around the country’s Delta region where its vast oil operations take place. Such loss of usable energy remains incomprehensible given the country’s erratic supply of electricity – the entire country consumes slightly less grid power than the area that contains Tokyo’s Narita Airport.

A major consequence of flaring of natural gas that could have been harnessed for domestic uses is the unavoidable reliance on petrol and diesel powered generators by businesses in Africa, and households who can afford them. By pressing these generators into use, more pollutants are dumped into the atmosphere, the attendant noise pollution that makes for sleepless nights for neighbors notwithstanding. To this list of negatives must be added other known serious health consequences such as deformities of infants, nerve and lung disorders, dermatological abnormalities, reproductive and developmental disorders, and high mortality rates.

But the solution to health and environmental consequences of flaring are not complex. First, African governments must institute laws and regulations that minimize the incidence of flaring to cases where they are necessary for safe drilling and production of crude oil. Second, these laws and regulations must be enforced to encourage compliance by oil producers. Although Nigeria has a draft Petroleum Bill that would ban all flaring after December 31, 2012, the bill remains in draft form with no real prospect for implementation. The other half of the problem would require governments to subsidize the construction of pipelines that would take harnessed natural gas to end users; if oil companies are required to bear this additional burden alone, they may simply find it more expedient to continue with the old ways of doing things: bribe government officials to look the other way, and flare on. This will not bode well for the continent, and would only exacerbate the planet’s growing problems with global warming.