Many Nigerians are familiar with the deadly practice of illegal oil refining. Siphoning, cooking and accidental fires have continued since 1958, when fossil fuel corporations began extracting crude oil and gas from the Niger Delta. But after an explosion on April 22 shook the Abaez forest and killed 100 people in the southeastern part of the country attracted attention.

As news of the Imo blast spread on various media platforms, the nation was thrown into what the Nigerian president called “shock and trauma.” He said the incident was catastrophic and described it as a “national disaster”.

Illegal oil refining – popularly known as oil bunkering or oil theft – involves sucking crude fuel from pipelines, often owned by foreign companies, and then transporting it to makeshift refineries hidden in bushes and forests a few miles away. Stolen goods are boiled in large metal containers from local refineries and distilled into products such as kerosene, diesel and gasoline. Once cleaned, it is sold around the country or exported abroad. Sometimes, however, the flames used to cook the crude oil get out of hand, causing explosions.

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Philip Jackpor, a Nigerian environmental activist, says illegal oil refining is common and remains a major problem for Nigeria, despite protests every time there are casualties. “Many people are benefiting from the illicit oil bunkering business, including government and security officials as well as communities in the Niger Delta region, and this is why this continues,” explains the director of programs at Corporate Accountability and Public Participation. Africa.

Explosions are not uncommon in illegal refining sites in communities in the Niger Delta, the country’s oil-rich region. But the consequences do not end there. The practice has dealt a severe blow to the national economy – crude oil accounts for approximately 90 percent of Nigeria’s source of income – costing the country and its people billions of dollars in losses. “Apart from the lives killed in the explosions, the Nigerian economy is also deprived of income,” said Jackpor.

Between January 2021 and February 2022 Nigeria lost more than 115,000 barrels due to oil bunkers, worth a total of $ 3.27 billion in crude oil, according to the Nigerian Oil Regulatory Commission upstream. A review of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Oil and Gas Industry Report, also showed that more than $ 270 million was lost from theft between 2016 and 2020. another local media report Dataphytein 2020, the country lost more than 39 million barrels and at least $ 1.6 billion due to theft and sabotage of crude oil.

Despite its obvious consequences for the economy, human life and the environment, illegal oil refining remains difficult to prevent the Nigerian government. A number of factors contribute to dangerous practices, including unemployment, limited access to socio-economic opportunities and tensions between oil companies and residents of the region due to environmental disasters caused by oil and gas production. “These are poor people whose communities have oil but do not enjoy any benefits and lack development, so they are committed to it,” said Jackpor. “They are also victims of the blow.”

“Stealing and cooking oil is not a business for the poor – ordinary people are just infantry.

Philip Jackpor of Corporate Accountability and Public Participation in Africa

A A study by researchers in 2020 at the University of Newcastle, UK, and the University of the Niger Delta, Nigeria, shows how host communities are severely damaged by the activities of local illegal oil refineries, with the greatest impact on agricultural land, estuaries and rivers. “They disregard the principles of environmental protection in the refining of crude oil and empty the residue after cooking the crude in nearby rivers and bodies of water,” said Oyinkepreye Lucky Bebeteidoh, a professor at the Department of Marine Engineering, Niger University and et al. of the study.

Bebeteido, who lives in Yenagoa, Bayels, a major oil country, worries that decades of environmental damage caused by oil activities in the Niger Delta region could be difficult to reverse. But he encouraged Nigerian leaders to encourage the public to stop illegal oil refining and to educate people about the effects on the environment. “The government also needs to provide basic amenities, including schools, roads and community hospitals,” Bebeteido said. He also added that he needed to create policies and open space in the Niger Delta for local refineries to participate in legal production. This will create more jobs and ensure proper regulation in the sector.

Jackpor, for his part, says the Nigerian government must work hard to identify the perpetrators of illegal oil refining and dealing with the impact on the environment of the communities in the Niger Delta. “This is a bleak situation and something drastic needs to be done,” he said.

This was said by a government spokesman PopSci to engage in repression against illegal oil refineries in the country. But they did not share any specific action plans.

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Jackpor believes that changing the decades-old system would be a good way to start. “Nigeria needs to block the doors that allow oil siphoning groups to operate without control. “The political will of the government is crucial because theft and cooking oil are not business for the poor – ordinary people are just infantry,” he said.

Although foreign governments are aware of oil bunkering, they did not intervene directly in the illegal business, even after large-scale disasters such as the one in the state of Imo. In recent years, international regulators have shown some interest in supporting Nigeria, but need better intelligence and information on oil thefts to intervene. Meanwhile, multinational oil companies like Shell that still owns billions of dollars in assets in the country, have not contributed much to the ways of decisions. If the industry can engage with communities in the Niger Delta and provide them with more socio-economic opportunities, then perhaps it can begin to mend its long history of neglect in the region.

Illegal oil refining has cost Nigerians their lives and environment for decades

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