NACGOND - The Nigeria Gas Industry and Processual Transparency: A Health Risk Perspective | By Rev. Fr. Edward Obi (MSP, PhD)
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The Nigeria Gas Industry and Processual Transparency: A Health Risk Perspective | By Rev. Fr. Edward Obi (MSP, PhD)
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The Nigeria Gas Industry and Processual Transparency: A Health Risk Perspective | By Rev. Fr. Edward Obi (MSP, PhD) Featured


As agreed, the theme of this Meeting is Climate Change and Environmental Justice, I would like to start from the most recent information I have got on the matter, and that comes from Shell’s Sustainability Report, published only this week.

This report claims that more than one-third of the world’s CO2 emissions come from electricity generation. Natural gas produces around half of the GHG emissions compared to coal across its life cycle, from production through to use in generating electricity (Shell Sustainability Report, 2013, pg. 10). The authors of the Report therefore canvass “switching from coal to gas for generating power as the quickest and most affordable route for many countries to achieve their CO2 reduction targets.

Furthermore, natural gas can be used as a single source for power generation, as well as a flexible back-up for renewable energy. It produces less of the smog-causing pollutants sometimes associated with coal plants, which benefits local air quality” (pg. 10). This meeting, I believe, seeks to create the right balance between two seemingly opposed ideas, namely, meeting the need for economic development and that of protecting and preserving the environment for present and future generations.

The test of a first-rate intelligence, said F. Scott Fitzgerald (1886), is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, yet still retain the ability to function. So try this for size: Proposition 1 is that capitalism is helping to drive the Sixth Great Extinction, sending species and ecosystems to the wall – and undermining our climate into the bargain. Now set that against Proposition 2, which asserts that capitalism will save the world for future generations.

The missing fact, of course, is that capitalism – like life itself – is almost infinitely flexible, having gone through many profound transformations over generations. Proposition 2 is thus perfectly possible, but how could you tell whether a given company, industry or economy was on the right path to attaining this balance?

 In the Sustainability Report just quoted I have seen both direct and indirect reference to the ‘shared value’ between the company and the wider community that the exploitation of our natural resources could bring. Question: Can a company claim shared value to society if its business model is rooted in a harmful product or practice?

Would this not be tantamount to giving with one hand and taking with the other?

Where is environmental justice located in a system that first destroys the environment and peoples livelihoods in order to create shared value?

Indeed, who will enjoy the shared value with the impairment that this industry masterminds in many cases.

At this point, may I hasten to say that this not just about Shell, but about corporations in general and their business models.


The Gas Sector in Nigeria

The Petroleum Industries Bill (PIB), which is still before the National Assembly, seeks to establish a legal, fiscal and regulatory framework for the oil and gas industries that would bring about the objective of the Federal government, namely to energize the structure of the gas sector to be investor-friendly.

This involves, among others, to support continued cost effectiveness in supply of all markets (domestic, regional and export), with capacity that is scalable and, above all, be fully liberalised and market driven. The current Bill breaks up the NNPC into four parts: the National Oil Company (NOC) Plc, the National Gas Company (NGC) Plc, the Upstream Petroleum Inspectorate and the Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Agency.

For the first time in Nigeria’s oil and gas history, natural gas will be treated separately from Petroleum and its associates. The implications of this are enormous. It means that there will be separate and deliberate investment in gas infrastructure and services, both of which come with their problems. Though the investment, according to the International Oil Companies (IOCs), is still scant from the government side, there is clear intent to make this sector more robust in both capital investment and infrastructure outlay.

This was confirmed recently by none other than the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs Deziani Alison-Madueke, when she presented her Ministry’s score-card. She is reported to have touted an impending “Gas revolution” in Nigeria, with “a significant improvement in gas to power supply for electricity generation up to five Gigawatts, establishment of commercial framework for gas, massive development of gas infrastructure across the country” (Vanguard Newspaper, 24th July, 2013, p. 9).

One major destination for the gas would be to the power sector that needs to expand from the present average of 3.7 Gigawatts to the over 15 Gigawatts needed urgently to support the nation’s economic growth potential. There will, therefore, be a proliferation of gas power plants to meet the shortfall in the near term.

Already, there are ten (10) of these power plants under the National Integrated Power Project (NIPP), which the nation is currently privatizing towards the achievement of the energy objectives. These power plants, seven (7) of which have been completed and concessioned to winning bidders at a whooping USD4.2 billion, will all use gas supplies from the Niger Delta for power generation.

Obviously, it is easy to see what is envisaged by the authors of the Master-plan, namely to key into, and exploit that gas potential for “accelerated economic development, in pursuit of the 10% GDP growth aspiration”,1 and ultimately the attainment of the President’s Transformation Agenda, and the much canvassed Vision 20-20-20.

In my opinion, there will be even more pressure now with the rebasing last Sunday of Nigeria’s GDP! There will in fact be a bullish approach to these expansions without the appropriate or commensurate attention to the health and safety of ordinary citizens.


My Provocation

Nowhere in all these elaborate arrangements has consideration been given to human persons that might be affected and impacted by this budding gas industry.

The toxic by-products of this process, as I shall demonstrate, are many and varied, and may bear down directly on the human, animal and aquatic populations in the Niger Delta.

The absolute lack of transparency with regard to the processes deployed to extract natural gas is a disturbing phenomenon. In addition, when companies are issued permits to drill, they have not traditionally been required to account for how the resulting liquid and solid waste would be handled. In short, their focus has not typically been on health and the environment.

In keeping with the rush to produce more natural gas to power a growing economy, technological advances have permitted the industry to drill deeper and expand wider, tapping into gas reserves with greater facility and profitability. While these advances have allowed the mining of vast, newly discovered gas deposits, the new technology depends heavily on the use of undisclosed types and amounts of toxic chemicals.


 Drilling and Dehydration process

It is important to quickly draw the attention of all to the fact that raw natural gas comes out of the well along with water, various liquid hydrocarbons including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (as a group, called BTEX), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and numerous other organic compounds that have to be removed from the gas.

When the gas leaves the well it is passed through units called heater treaters that are filled with triethylene glycol and/or ethylene glycol that absorbs the water from the gas. Glycol has hygroscopic properties, and so absorbs water and everything else that behaves like water. Once the glycol solution becomes saturated with water, the heaters turn on and raise the temperature high enough to boil off the water, which is vented directly into the atmosphere or, in some cases, through a closed system.

Let me underscore the fact that heat energy in required to purify the glycol for reuse, however, the heat also causes bonding to occur between the glycol and all impurities accompanying the raw gas, e.g. salts, alcohols and other hydroxyls.

Upon cooling, this glycol already bonded with water, salts, alcohols and other hydroxyls is channeled into a nearby tank labeled “produced water”. The glycol fluid, which has a higher boiling point than water, cools and is reused. During the heating process at critical temperatures the oily substances that came up with the gas become volatile and then re-condense into a separate holding tank. This is known as “condensate” water.

The contaminated water can be re-injected underground on the well pad or off site, or hauled off the well pad to waste evaporation pits. Temporary pits are also constructed during drilling to hold the cuttings, used drilling mud which is often re-used, and any other contaminated water that comes to the surface while drilling. These reserve pits on well pads are supposed to be drained and covered with top soil or other suitable material within a month after drilling stops.

From the first day the drill bit is inserted into the ground until the well is completed, toxic materials are introduced into the borehole and returned to the surface along with produced water and other extraction liquids. Industrial process literature indicates that it is common practice to hold these liquids in open evaporation pits until the wells are shut down. In the USA this could be 15 to 25 years, but in Nigeria this could be 50 years and above.

These pits have rarely been examined to ascertain their chemical contents. One cannot even say with certainty whether limited parameters such as primarily metals, chlorides, and radioactive materials are being checked. Scientific knowledge from other parts of the world shows that extremely toxic chemicals are found in evaporation pits and indeed, these and other similar sites may need to be designated for cleanup.

Our suspicion is that in Nigeria some companies are re-injecting these chemicals underground, creating yet another potential source of extremely toxic chemical contamination of underground water sources.


Groundwater Contamination

From the foregoing, it is easy to see why scholars like Richard J. Davies et al, in a very recent article writing under the theme of the integrity of oil and gas wells, raised questions about the possible environmental and health risks associated with these processes, such as the potential for groundwater contamination (e.g.) and fugitive emissions of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere (e.g.).

There were at least 5 new and different peer reviewed articles published in 2013 alone, expressing this anxiety. Here I am happy to point to Jackson et al., 2013; Vidic et al., 2013; Miller et al., 2013; King and King, 2013; to say little of the ground breaking publication of the IPCC, also in 2013. All of these come on the heels of the well articulated report of the Royal Society & The Royal Academy of Engineering Report in 2012.

Note that boreholes drilled to explore for and extract hydrocarbons must penetrate shallower strata before reaching the target horizons. In addition to protecting ground and surface waters, effective well sealing prevents leakage of methane and other gases into the atmosphere. This is important as methane is 86 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 20-year period and 34 times more effective over a century.

Once again, to regenerate the EG, one adds (heat) energy to the system. But this energy is also sufficient to have EG react with salts and create fur-like deposits in the boiling system, just like one gets magnesium and calcium-based deposits on a cooker/boiler when (hard) water is brought to boiling point.

This energy can also cause other -OH-molecules to react to/with other substances as well, which may have accompanied the wet gas from the earth. Here a special group of so-called aromatic compounds comes to mind. These have an exceptionally reactive end-group. Phenol is the -OH-variant, and so is Benzene, Toluene, Ethyl-benzene and Xylene.

Note that the compounds so far named are formed during the required boiling process to regenerate EG, and it is the lost 5-10% that often reacts with other micro-molecules in the natural gas, increasing their boiling point, and making them impossible to break down.

These will therefore ultimately remain as residue: a black carcinogenic tar that can only be incinerated at very high temperatures. The problem : nature uses process kinetics with the implication that adding energy like heat will result in a new stable compound at a higher energy level, and this means, to change the new compound, one must add even more energy. How much energy can humans generate in order to break down the stable compounds they might ingest/assimilate? Very little, indeed.

There is good scientific evidence that short and long term exposure to BTEX has negative effects on the semen and accessory gonads of people, especially workers, exposed to them over long periods. A study carried out on rats, for instance, revealed that “a subacute exposure of male rats to a high level (2000 ppm) of toluene vapour can elicit mild toxic changes in the kidneys, thymus, and reproductive organs of males…. In male rats… ethyl acetate and xylene were reported to interfere with the functions of the testes and accessory reproductive organs” (Xiao et. al., 2001. Effect of Benzene, Toluene, Xylene on the Semen Quality and the Function of Accessory Gonad of Exposed Workers, Industrial Health 39, 206-210).

The endocrine system is the exquisitely balanced system of glands and hormones that regulates such vital functions as body growth, response to stress, sexual development and behavior, production and use of insulin, rate of metabolism, intelligence and behavior, and the ability to reproduce. The endocrine system operates at very low concentrations of hormones, often in parts-per-billion or less, making it susceptible to very low levels of exposure, which can impact organisms and their offspring, including humans.

Prenatal exposure should especially be avoided. Endocrine disrupting effects include reduced sperm production, infertility, hormone imbalances, effects on the thyroid, adrenals, pituitary, and more. Effects like these might not be seen for months or years and would be difficult to trace back to exposure to gas industry chemicals. But this does not remove the fact that exposure to gas and other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) is largely responsible for this.


Implications for Human Beings

Now the human body can provide a limited amount of chemical energy to deal with strange chemical compounds, normally sufficient to deal with normal natural environmental compounds with average energy levels required to break them down.

But if the body cannot provide sufficient energy, the high-energy-level compound stays untouched and is stored in fat-layers in the body, or worse: in the organs. And sometimes these chemicals remain active and can react with internal body-compounds like enzymes and proteins and amino acids, which happen to be the basic building block of a substance called des-oxy-ribo-nucleic-acid, better known as DNA.

Once the DNA starts to replicate via a duplication kinetic called t-RNA-polymerase, a chemical reaction triggered by an enzyme, it will duplicate the amino acids in sequence, and also affect any changed amino acid, which could ultimately cause genetic defects in humans as this duplication process is sensitive and fragile. These defects may be simple and of no consequence if they are not on a key-functional part of the DNA. But who can guarantee this? If, however, they happen to be on a key-part, serious defects can occur, and these will ultimately result in defects at birth, immediately affecting the health and ability of the new born one.


Instead of a conclusion: Arguing for Chemical-free Technology

Our intention here has not been to oppose the Federal Government’s intention to exploit our vast resources of natural gas, as this is necessary to meet the present and urgent need to develop our economy and meet cash-calls for reaching our developmental goals.

At the same time, we know that development that does not factor in possible consequences for human beings is a contradiction in terms. This is why we wish to reiterate that all the above mentioned toxic effects arise only when EG is used in the process of gas dehydration/purification. Needed, therefore, is the requisite transparency with regard to the processes deployed for gas extraction, and what chemical are used.

I have a fundamental belief that communities have a right in justice to know what chemicals abound in their environment, and to be afforded the possibility of protecting themselves against these.

But even more importantly, there is now tested technology that does not require the use of EG, a good example being that in use right now in the Afam Gas Plant, which feeds Afam Power Station. My point is, since we know this technology exists, and is already being used at least in one gas plant in Nigeria, why not replicate it in others as well? Prevention, as they say, is better than cure; so why do we not choose to avoid the toxicity of BTEX wastes by making a safe technology choice now, rather than be saddled with the social and environmental impact, and the possible political fallouts of unsafe disposal of these carcinogenic wastes? So far the only reason militating against this is the economics of cost-saving and profit making.

But I do not find this convincing, because if one looks seriously at the equation, we must base our economic model on LCC, life cycle cost. This means that the cost of a project must be calculated from the day of conceptual design to the moment of dismantling the plant, including operational expenses OPEX (i.e. proper waste removal during operation) and removal expenses (i.e. proper waste removal after operation), and not only capital expenditure CAPEX, or the initial cost for setting up a gas processing unit.

My view is that if you take all the removal/disposal costs into consideration, even apart from the related environmental, social and political problems, new chemical-free technology will prevail in advantage over EG-dependent processes.


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