NPR logo Gas Flaring Continues to Plague Nigeria

Gas Flaring Continues to Plague Nigeria

Natural gas flare at a Shell flow station in Nigeria. Credit: Brenda Wilson, NPR. i

Gas flares are common in the Niger River Delta. Oil companies use them to burn off unwanted natural gas. This massive flare is erupting from the ground at a Shell flow station. Brenda Wilson, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Brenda Wilson, NPR
Natural gas flare at a Shell flow station in Nigeria. Credit: Brenda Wilson, NPR.

Gas flares are common in the Niger River Delta. Oil companies use them to burn off unwanted natural gas. This massive flare is erupting from the ground at a Shell flow station.

Brenda Wilson, NPR

Few things are more startling about the Niger River Delta than rounding a curve and encountering an enormous flame ahead. Sometimes it pours out of a smokestack, which reminds you of an oil refinery. Sometimes it comes straight out of a hole in the ground, which makes you think of hell.

Shell Nigeria Report

This is a 2004 report published by the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria. This 47-page document provides Shell's view of its activities in the Niger River Delta.

What's really happening is that companies are "flaring," burning unwanted natural gas that comes up when they drill for oil.

"Nigeria accounts for about 25 percent of the world's flaring," J. Stephen Morrisson, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told a Senate committee last year. "It's visible from outer space."

Nigeria by the Numbers

Annual Natural Gas Production Lost to Flaring: 42.6 Percent

Projected Annual Nigerian LNG Production Capacity by the end of 2005: 1.1 Trillion Cubic Feet

Natural Gas Reserves: 176 Trillion Cubic Feet

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

A July 2003 report on Nigeria by the U.S. Energy Information Administration noted that flaring "has not only meant that a potential energy source — and source of revenue — has gone up in smoke, but it is also a major contributor to air pollution and acid rain."

An executive for Shell, Nigeria's largest energy producer, pointed out to us that gas burns cleanly. Gas is indeed considered cleaner than other fuels, but a U.S. Energy Department official testified in 2002 that flaring is "generally unhealthy to humans and ecosystems" and produces carbon dioxide, which has been linked to global warming.

Why wouldn't the companies sell Nigeria's gas? Until recently, there was a limited market for gas in Nigeria, and there was no easy way to ship it to market overseas.

Today, thatÂ’s changing. It's becoming common for gas to be chilled into a liquid and sent by tanker ship to major markets, including the United States. Oil companies, led by Shell, have invested billions to build a terminal to cool and ship the delta's liquefied natural gas, or LNG. A second LNG terminal is on the way.

Yet it's not easy to stop flaring. Nigeria has ordered oil companies to cease large-scale flaring by 2008. But Shell disclosed in its most recent annual report that it will miss the deadline. Even some progress claimed by Shell is now in question.

Its latest report, titled People and the Environment 2004, claimed that Shell ceased flaring at a location near the village of Odidi. However, when we visited in July 2005, we witnessed flaring in progress. Shortly afterward, we were detained for two hours by gunmen from the Shell facility, who demanded, unsuccessfully, that we surrender our tape and camera film.

When we asked for an explanation from a Shell executive, Chris Findlayson, he said that the flaring we witnessed was a temporary situation made necessary by technical problems.

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