French oil firm Total SA says natural gas leak ongoing at a plant in Nigeria’s Niger Delta

Total benzinestation Calandstraat
(Photo credit: Gerard Stolk)

The Washington Post, LAGOS, Nigeria — French oil firm Total SA said Saturday that a natural gas leak at one of its plants in Nigeria’s crude-rich southern delta may have been going on for weeks.

The leak at its Obite natural gas site has forced the company to evacuate those nearby and led to daily monitoring of air and water surrounding the plant in Nigeria’s Rivers state. However, Total’s Nigerian subsidiary hasn’t made any public statement about the leak since it likely began following an incident March 20, though the company has given near-daily updates about a similar leak at a plant off the United Kingdom in the North Sea.

In a statement, Total’s Nigerian subsidiary said workers noticed a mix of water and natural gas bubbling up from an uninhabited site near the Obite plant on April 3. Total said there had been no injuries from the leaks, which it said likely followed the “technical incident” on March 20.

Total spokesman Charles Ebereonwu said Saturday he did not have details of the incident.

“All necessary means to ensure the protection of nearby communities and personnel and to limit the impact on the environment have been immediately mobilized,” Total said in a statement on its subsidiary’s website dated Thursday. “Strict monitoring of the environment is ongoing and a safety perimeter has been established.”

The statement said testing has not found any “toxic elements” in the environment.

Rumors about an accident at a Total operation have circulated in Nigeria for weeks, though the company remained silent. Asked why the company hadn’t publicized the Obite gas plant leak, Ebereonwu said Total’s Nigerian subsidiary had been posting updates on its website. However, the company has not sent any information to journalists. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with more than 160 million residents, is a top energy supplier to the U.S. The OPEC member nation also has seen foreign oil firms boost production of natural gas in recent years.

However, environmental and industry regulations lag behind spills and violence in its oil-rich Niger Delta, a region of mangroves and swamps about the size of Portugal. Some environmentalists say much as 2.1 billion liters (550 million gallons) of oil have spilled during more than 50 years of production. That would be at a rate roughly comparable to one Exxon Valdez disaster per year in a region where oil still stains beaches and waterways.

Many foreign oil firms blame thieves for much of the oil spills now happening in the region, as they tap into pipelines to steal crude. However, there have been a series of major spills and accidents in the last six months, including a spill by Royal Dutch Shell PLC at its offshore Bonga facility that saw some 40,000 barrels of oil spill.

Total’s Obite gas plant exports a capacity of 10.65 million metric cubes of natural gas, and collects oil condensate to mix with crude oil it produces from another area, the company has said. Total operates in the plant in partnership with the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. Total said it has stopped production at the Obite plant and shut down its wells.

Okonjo’s Subsidy Interview [video]

I understand her to be arguing that lifting the fuel subsidy is a form of wealth redistribution. About three minutes into the video she argues that the poorest segment of the population doesn’t purchase fuel and thus doesn’t benefit from the subsidy. However, the poor do purchase food, and the cost of food partly depends on the cost of fuel used to transport it. The poor do sell goods to passing cars, and the number of cars that can pass them on any given day depends on the cost of fuel. The poor do spend their days working and sometimes their evenings in school, and a school’s capacity to have generator-powered light after dark depends on the cost of fuel. The price of this single product negatively impacts the poor more than any other segment of society in fact. They are the ones who will suffer most over the next few years as they wait for hypothetical social services (which will realistically never come) that will make the removal of the subsidy “worth it.”

One of her more paradoxical arguments is that lifting the fuel subsidy will help fund programs to improve maternal and infant mortality. The reality is that hospitals in Nigeria depend on generators. Those generators power incubators, sterilizers, water pumps, and light bulbs necessary to for health care providers to do even the bare minimum that they are able to now. Within homes, families need to be able to power fans and air-conditioners to reduce the chances of malaria infection among pregnant women and children under the age of five. Ultimately, because there is no reliable source of electricity in the country, lifting the fuel subsidy will make running generators prohibitively expensive and will actually worsen maternal and infant health.

All in all, not a shining example of a quality interview on the part of Okonjo.

NLC Strike Suspended While Soldiers Clamp Down on Protesters

There are two major developments today.  First, the NLC has asked for a “suspension” (i.e. end) to the nation-wide labor strike and encourages all Nigerians to return to work tomorrow, despite that the price of fuel was not returned to its previous price. The federal government had  stated last week that the N141 per liter price was non-negotiable but agreed with the NLC over the weekend on N97. The NLC also reiterated its call for an end to street demonstrations (although the demonstrations began before the NLC became publicly involved and most were planned and implemented independently of the NLC anyway).

Second, although the number and intensity of protests across the country lessened, today saw the strongest suppression of demonstrators yet. Police clamped down harshly on marchers (led by the former governor) in the northern city of Kano and President Jonathan deployed soldiers to disperse the remaining demonstrators in Lagos.  Soldiers fired live rounds into the air and around the crowds.  There were no fatalities. Additionally, state security forces stormed the CNN and BBC offices in Lagos, presumably to stop those news sources from reporting on the protests.

The Joint Action Front, the organizational force behind Occupy Nigeria in Lagos, has promised to sustain their protests.

Occupy Nigeria is over for the most part I think, and it is due to relative deprivation. Relative deprivation occurs when expectations (e.g. of standard of living) outpace capacities (e.g. to earn an income). In the long-term, the removal of the subsidy pales in comparison to other hardships this country has endured, and cannot be compared to many other injustices under previous regimes. Today’s Nigerians may compare themselves to Nigerians living under the economically inept administration of Obasanjo or the oppressive dictatorship of Abacha and be comparably thankful for Jonathan.  Nigerians have low expectations of their government because the government so frequently under performs, thus rising fuel prices are not shocking enough to galvanize prolonged resistance.  In the short-term, Nigerians spent last week bracing themselves for doubled fuel prices, making it easier to accept a 50% increase this week.  So long as expectations remain low, the state will not disappoint its citizens enough to incite  sustained opposition.

 

Fuel Prices Down to N97, NLC Suspends Street Protests (Jan. 16)

Just over an hour ago, President Jonathan announced that the federal government would reinstate a portion of the fuel subsidy, reducing the price at filling stations to N97 per liter. Although this is not the previous pump price of N65 that the Occupy Nigeria movement, the National Labour Congress (NLC), and the Trade Union Congress had requested, it is a significant reduction from the N141 price from the past two weeks. The President asked all Nigerians to return to work today, citing the economic hardships that the past week has caused to the country.  In response, NLC called off the public demonstrations but continued with the strike, urging workers to stay off the streets and continue striking at home. I am waiting to hear back from the civil/human rights groups who had coordinated with the NLC to plan the protests, as the former may or may not continue with their marches that had been scheduled for this morning at Isaac Boro Park in Port Harcourt. Here is the text from the President’s broadcast:

“Dear Compatriots,

This is the second time in two weeks I will address you on the deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. In the last seven days, the nation has witnessed a disruption of economic activities.  Although, the economic imperatives for the policy have been well articulated by government, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) went ahead to declare a nationwide strike.

There was also near-breakdown of law and order in certain parts of the country as a result of the activities of some persons or groups of persons who took advantage of the situation to further their narrow interests by engaging in acts of intimidation, harassment and outright subversion of the Nigerian state. I express my sympathy to those who were adversely affected by the protests.

At the inception of the deregulation policy, Government had set up the Justice Alfa Belgore Committee to liaise with Labour and other stakeholders to address likely grey areas in the policy, but despite all our efforts, Labour refused the option of dialogue and also disobeyed a restraining order of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria.

However, following the intervention of the Leadership of the National Assembly, and other well-meaning Nigerians, Labour accepted to meet with government, but this yielded no tangible result.

It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have hijacked the protest. This has prevented an objective assessment and consideration of all the contending issues for which dialogue was initiated by government. These same interests seek to promote discord, anarchy, and insecurity to the detriment of public peace.

Government appreciates that the implementation of the deregulation policy would cause initial hardships and commends Nigerians who have put forth suggestions and credible alternatives in this regard. Government also salutes Nigerians who by and large, conducted themselves peacefully while expressing their grievances.

Let me assure you that government will continue to respect the people’s right to express themselves within the confines of the law and in accordance with the dictates of our democratic space.

Government will continue to pursue full deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. However, given the hardships being suffered by Nigerians, and after due consideration and consultations with state governors and the leadership of the National Assembly, government has approved the reduction of the pump price of petrol to N97 per litre. The Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) has been directed to ensure compliance with this new pump price.

Government is working hard to reduce recurrent expenditure in line with current realities and to cut down on the cost of governance. In the meantime, government has commenced the implementation of the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment projects: including the Federal Government- assisted mass transit programme which is already in place, and job creation for the youth.

Furthermore, the legal and regulatory regime for the petroleum industry will be reviewed to address accountability issues and current lapses in the Industry. In this regard, the Petroleum Industry Bill will be given accelerated attention. The report of the forensic audit carried out on the NNPC is being studied with a view to implementing the recommendations and sanctioning proven acts of corruption in the industry.

Let me assure Nigerians that this administration is irrevocably committed to tackling corruption in the petroleum industry as well as other sectors of the economy. Consequently, all those found to have contributed one way or the other to the economic adversity of the country will be dealt with in accordance with the law.

My dear compatriots, I urge you to show understanding for the imperatives of the adjustment in the pump price of petrol and give government your full support to ensure its successful implementation. I further appeal to Nigerians to go back to work and go about their normal duties as government has made adequate arrangements for the protection of life and property throughout the federation.

Government will not condone brazen acts of criminality and subversion. As President, I have sworn to uphold the unity, peace and order of the Nigerian State and by the grace of God, I intend to fully and effectively discharge that responsibility.  Let me add that we are desirous of further engagements with Labour. I urge our Labour leaders to call off their strike, and go back to work.

Nigeria belongs to all of us and we must collectively safeguard its unity.

Thank you. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

The demand that the liter price be reduced back to its original price of N65 per liter was one of the clear and consistent demands common among all agitating groups this week.  It will be up to the involved civil society organizations to decide if they want to join the NLC in calling off streets protests but continuing the strike, or if organizations want to continue to demonstrate in order to meet their original price goal.

By agreeing to N97 per liter, subsidy supporters show that they are willing to engage in dialogue and compromise with the federal government, possibly increasing their legitimacy in the eyes of state officials and  their chances of collaboration with the government in the future. However, agreeing to a price higher than the original one may also indicate to the public that the NLC is no restraining force on the state, and is simply a collection of “big men” making decisions behind closed doors.

The lesson learned by the government may be that if they want to implement an unpopular decision, all they must do is take a wildly unpopular action and quickly change it to a mildly unpopular one for it to be palatable.  Like a seasoned salesman who knows a buyer will haggle over a price, perhaps the federal government doubled the fuel price in order to ultimately have the price be increased by just 50%, sending the public the message that the state is responsive to the demands of the public.

Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan, 14th President of Nigeria

Fuel subsidy protests halted for 2 days, after Government-labour talks paused

“Revolutions” do not typically take a few days off. I am assuming that the NLC aims to end the strike soon. Suspending protests over the weekend is a prudent way to do this because Occupy Nigeria movement members are far more likely to acquiesce to the end of the strike after a weekend of rest. We will see.

Safer Nigeria Resources

On 12 January, negotiations between President Goodluck Jonathan and labour leaders, over the government’s removal of subsidy on petrol, reported some progress but produced no agreement. Labour leaders said the nationwide strike started on 9 January will continue, pending the outcome of another meeting on Saturday 14 January. But they halted public rallies and street demonstrations for the weekend.

The meeting between Jonathan and the labour leaders was the first since the strike began. The President of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Abdulwahed Omar told newsmen that: “We have not concluded discussions yet, but we have had very fruitful discussions. We have to continue on Saturday afternoon… Until we conclude the discussions, we maintain the status quo”.

 The government had come under increasing pressure to make concessions. Over the past four days, tens of thousands of protesters, led by an alliance of labour leaders and civil society activists, had been…

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Day 5’s Anti-Occupy Nigeria Demonstration, Port Harcourt

Occupy Nigeria activists did not take to the streets today.  However, pro-Jonathan demonstrators reacted to pro-subsidy marches by staging their own movement, arriving to Port Harcourt on minibuses in order to show their support for the Federal Government’s decision. Gathering at 9 am, they marched north up Aba road, down to Diobu road, and then to Rivers State Government House (the site of Occupy Nigeria’s protest on Tuesday).

Most of the anti-Occupy Nigeria demonstrators were Ijaws from oil-rich Bayelsa, the ethnic group and home state of the President. They came out with two aims in mind.  First, they announced their allegiance to the current administration. They cautioned that if anyone attempts to assassinate Jonathan then northerners will emerge to testify as to how he died. Their remarks allude to the fear that the protests, in conjunction with the discontent caused by Boko Haram violence, are enough to bring about an attempt on the President’s life. The second purpose of the protest was to criticize the National Labour Congress’ unnecessary national workers’ strike. Pro-Jonathan speakers stated that Nigerians should both go back to work and support the President’s decision to lift the subsidy.  They further accused the NLC of complacency in the period after the extrajudicial killing of Niger Delta human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, arguing that the NLC had a duty to speak out against the injustice of his execution.

Today’s march was led by the former leader of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, Asari Dokubo.  Dokubo is a militant-turned-politician who ran for Rivers State office twice in the 190s. He has lived in Abuja since being granted amnesty two years ago. It was the perception of some of the Occupy Nigeria mobilizers that Oronto Douglas, Jonathan’s strategic advisor on the Niger Delta, helped to fund the minibuses that delivered the demonstrators from Bayelsa State, but this is not at all confirmed.

Asari Dokubo

The demonstration was peaceful overall, except for a scuffle over the distribution of free t-shirts. The shirts depicted the images of Asari and Saro-Wiwa along with the message, “Sovereign National Conference Now!” The purposed pan-Nigerian conference would bring together representatives from all ethnic groups to chart a path forward for the country. Such a conference feels far removed from the current crisis here.

An Oil Production Strike?

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on how removal of the subsidy may affect production. “Nigeria’s main oil union said Thursday that it would shut down oil production on Sunday if the government did not reverse its decision to remove popular fuel subsidies. Nationwide strikes prompted by the decision, which has doubled gas prices, continued Thursday, as tens of thousands of people protested for the fourth straight day. President Goodluck Jonathan met with labor unions on Thursday to try to resolve the dispute. The president of one of the largest unions, Abdulwaheed Omar of Nigeria Labor Congress, called the talks ‘fruitful’ and said they would meet again on Saturday.”

Nearly 80% of the Nigerian state budget depends on crude revenues.  Would the federal government  really permit the union to stop production, especially in a post-Arab Spring oil economy in which Nigerian exports are more strategically important than ever?  For me, not likely. However, a friend in the oil industry here thinks that the union absolutely could stop work and that if that happened, the Occupy Nigeria movement would officially be a success less than 24 hours later.  The Nigerian state can survive reinstatement of the fuel subsidy, shame-faced but more-or-less as intact as before, but the state cannot survive without oil production.