NIGERIA: Potential gas hotspot, on frontline for climate change

Experts meeting in the country on 7th March, 2009 said the west African powerhouse, which has the seventh largest proven natural gas reserves in the world at 187 trillion cubic feet, could become a key player in the international gas market. Nigeria, tipped to be the world’s next natural gas powerhouse, is on the frontline for climate change as it is ranked Africa’s largest producer of greenhouse gases.

But the gas is mainly found in the Niger Delta — an oil-producing area of swamps and creeks the size of Scotland — that occupies an unenviable position of being Africa’s largest gas flarer and one of the continent’s lowest-lying areas.

“The Niger Delta has the distinction of being the single biggest source of carbon dioxide in the African continent,” said Stefan Cramer, a German climate change expert who lived in Nigeria until last year.

The carbon dioxide comes from gas flaring, the burning of the excess gas that comes out of the ground with oil, which is the cheapest — and the most wasteful — way of dealing with it.

Cramer says Nigeria emits 20 billion cubic metres of gas annually, accounting for 13 percent of the 150 billion cubic metres of gas flared every year globally.

Only Russia flares more gas than Nigeria, which ranks eighth among the world’s oil producers.

Nigeria could in future be counted among the world’s top gas suppliers, and possibly reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia — if a 13-billion-dollar (10-billion-euro) Trans-Sahara Gas Pipeline comes on stream.

Under the mega project gas would travel more than 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles) from Nigeria through Niger and to export terminals on Algeria’s Mediterranean coast. It is planned to begin operating in 2015.

“Nigeria is very well located as a supplier for major markets like the US… Mexico, and all Europe,” said Guy Maurice, head of Total Nigeria.

But communities in the oil and gas producing Niger Delta have to endure the difficulties of living next to the flares.

“Flaring has affected us very seriously, it has dispossessed locals of their livelihood and the little that is left is polluted,” said Comrade Che Ibegwura, a community leader in Rivers, one of the Delta states where most flaring takes place.

“The people living in the vicinity of the flaring sites can’t differentiate between day and night and the heat is so excessive,” he said, adding the region is having to deal with previously uncommon illnesses.

The low-lying coastal area is also at particular risk of rising sea levels, which scientists warn could go up by one metre by the end of this century.

“With every centimetre of rise in water the intensity of the waves rises exponentially — with only 20 centimetres (of rise in sea levels) the effect on the coastline can be dramatic,” said Cramer.

As well as being a major contributor to climate change, gas flaring is also a loss to the national economy.

The Nigeria Gas Association (NGA) estimates that the country lost some 72 billion dollars (56 billion euros) with the gas it flared from 1970 to 2006.

NGA head Chris Ogiemwonyi says factoring in the effects of the environmental, economic and social consequences “we could potentially be discussing numbers in the region of 150 billion dollars in real terms.”

Ironically Nigeria suffers chronic shortages of electricity, whose power generating plants are fired by gas.

Oil companies say phasing out flaring requires money and time.

The government banned flaring in 1979 but granted exceptions, and 30 years on, most operators are still relying on those exceptions.

Over the past few years the government has set several deadlines for phasing out flaring, but none has been met.

Oil majors in Nigeria say they are committed to dramatically cut flaring and have new flagship projects operated on a zero-flare basis.

Analysts agree that eliminating flaring will be costly but they point out that a fraction of the estimated 400 billion dollars of state money stolen by past leaders between independence and 1999 would have financed all the needed infrastructure.