RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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When you have a minute, go to the Web site Google Earth. It shows satellite images of the world, and you can spin the world around to Nigeria. Zoom in on a bulge along the country's coast, and you see an oil-producing region. If you look closely, you'll see bright yellow spots. Those are the flames of burning natural gas, flames so big, they are visible from space. The gas comes up when companies drill for oil. There's still no market for much of it, so the companies burn it. Some experts believe Nigeria's gas flares are the single largest source of greenhouse gasses in Africa, south of the Sahara.
And today, they are the focus of Climate Connections. NPR and National Geographic explore how climate shapes people and people shape climate. As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, the flares have a big effect on daily life.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: The village of Ebocha-Egbema is in the heart of River State in Nigeria's turbulent, oil-producing Niger Delta. Now, much of the region where the oil is pumped is a maze of winding mangrove creeks and waterways. But Ebocha is an unremarkable collection of small villages - leafy, green and humid, with tin-roof houses and shops. It's also home to gas flares, operated by Agip-Nigeria.
What you could hear there is the heat of four large gas flares, huge flames billowing into the air. Above them, black clouds literally leaping into the sky. These are the gas flares that the local people in the Niger Delta say are causing them problems. And they say it heats up the air, and I can feel it. And there's a strange smell. It's raining here, but that doesn't stop the gas flares.
Mr. CHRIS ELVIDGE (Research Scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): My name's Chris Elvidge, and I work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado. I'm a research scientist.
QUIST-ARCTON: On the other side of the world from Nigeria, picture a map of satellite images of gas flares so huge, they can be spotted from space. Chris Elvidge and his colleagues in Colorado track gas flaring all over the globe. He says after Russia, Nigeria has the most flares.
Mr. ELVIDGE: The gas flares in Nigeria are in the Niger Delta and offshore. Fifty to 100 of these gas flares produce very large halos of light, balls of light, and it's because the flares have no shielding around them.
QUIST-ARCTON: Worldwide, oil companies have been burning the gas associated with crude oil production for years. In 2002, the World Bank launched a joint private/public global partnership to find ways to cut gas flaring, while ensuring other benefits such as energy savings and reduced air pollution.
Experts say eliminating global flaring alone would curb more CO2 emissions than all the projects currently registered under the Kyoto Protocol's clean development mechanism.
(Soundbite of gas flare)
QUIST-ARCTON: In Nigeria, the gas is often burned right next door to homes that don't even have electricity. Oil is big business and a mainstay of the economy, and Africa's leading crude oil producer - $46 billion a year. But despite its oil wealth, Nigeria itself suffers chronic energy shortages.
Here in Ebocha-Egbema, in the Delta, the community says gas flaring is ruining lives and livelihoods. Chief Eze Kingsley Okene, a local traditional leader and retired chemist, says Nigeria isn't doing enough to curb the practice.
Mr. EZE KINGSLEY OKENE (Local Traditional Leader, Retired Chemist): The flares started 10th October 1970. So the flare, which has started from then is still on today.
QUIST-ARCTON: The giant gas flares belching out noxious fumes loom over homes, farms and shops.
Mr. OKENE: We are living with dead here because all (unintelligible) dangerous to health means we are living with the dead.
QUIST-ARCTON: While many villagers here may not be familiar with the concept of climate change, they complain the air around them is hotter and smellier because of the gas flares.
Chief Okene's wife, Roseline, has become something of an activist, organizing protests against the flames she says produce poisons that kill crops and make villagers sick.
Ms. ROSALINE OKENE (Eze Kingsley Okene's Wife, Activist): If you put water in a basin, you see that the water will change to charcoal — black and slippery. You cannot wash it out without soap. So if human being drink such water, it (unintelligible).
QUIST-ARCTON: In the areas close to the gas flares, medical staff report treating patients with all sorts of illnesses they believe are related to the flames - bronchial, chest, rheumatic and eye problems, among others. Some are referred to the general hospital here at Ebocha-Egbema, which is being completely refurbished.
(Soundbite of hammering)
QUIST-ARCTON: The senior nursing officer here, Anthonia Chioma Ike, doesn't come from this part of Nigeria. But after eight years living and working in the vicinity of the gas flares, she's furious about what's going on.
Ms. ANTHONIA CHIOMA IKE (Senior Nursing Officer, Ebocha-Egbeme General Hospital): I don't feel fine. I don't feel fine. I don't feel fine. I don't feel fine. I feel afraid. I feel that something might happen one day that will cause the disaster in the community.
QUIST-ARCTON: Like what?
Ms. IKE: Like fire. Like people around that area, always come here complaining that they are having internal heat. And they say that they don't sleep because of the noise of that place. From here, you'll be hearing the noise. Hearing the noise.
(Soundbite of imitating noise)
Ms. IKE: Like that. Yes. Yes. Every time…
(Soundbite of imitating noise)
Ms. IKE: Like when the winds are coming.
(Soundbite of imitating wind noise)
Ms. IKE: Like that or the…
(Soundbite of imitating noise)
Ms. IKE: As if something is falling from up - from high, because every time it seems that the house and everything will just explode.
QUIST-ARCTON: In response to international and local pressure, in 1984, Nigeria pledged to eliminate gas flares. 2008 was set as the target date. While gas flaring is unlikely to end next year, the government says it's serious about the effort.
Anthony Adegbulugbe, from Ile-Ife University's Center for Energy and Development, is an expert for the Nigerian government.
Professor ANTHONY ADEGBULUGBE (Center for Energy Research and Development, Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, Nigeria): What's important now is that the rate at which the gas is flaring is going down shows that the policy is working.
QUIST-ARCTON: Efforts to reduce gas flaring are producing results, says Chris Elvidge over at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado.
Dr. CHRIS ELVIDGE (Physical Scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): Nigeria has brought their gas flaring down from the mid-1990s. So Nigeria is actually one of the few countries in the world where gas flaring has been reduced, but there's still a lot of it.
QUIST-ARCTON: The Nigerian government acknowledges that the oil industry still flares enough to power a good portion of Africa for an entire year. But while there's a local market for the natural gas vented during oil production, it's less profitable than crude oil. Critics like the Niger Delta environmental lawyer and campaigner, Oronto Douglas, warn that not enough is being done to put out flares or save gas that could be harvested and used within Nigeria.
Mr. ORONTO DOUGLAS (Deputy Director, Environmental Rights Action): This is a monumental waste of our natural resources. The resources are simply wasted.
QUIST-ARCTON: Chief Okene in Ebocha-Egbema just wants change. Tapping on the badly rusted and eroded tin roof over his home - acid rain, he tells us - he leads us behind the house as rain pours down to show us the stump of what was a precious coconut tree.
Mr. OKENE: This died about four years ago. But the point I'm making is that this coconut is supposed to remain at least 50 years before dying, but the burning gas have made it to die under 10 years. It's the effect of the flare.
QUIST-ARCTON: A tale you hear echoed all over Nigeria's gas flaring oil-producing communities.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR news, Ebocha-Egbema, Nigeria.