Anyone under the age of 29 who lives in the small fishing village of Akaraolu, deep in the tropical jungle of Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region, has never known a dark and peaceful night's sleep. They've lived their entire lives knowing that once the sun sets behind the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta that its light would be almost entirely supplanted by that of a roaring gas flare on the edge of town that's been turning the night into day unhindered for nearly 30 years.
The flare, owned by Italian oil company AgipPetroli, is the town's most prominent feature. And it is a burning, dancing icon of how once-simple life in this region, in which six international oil companies extract an average of 2 mm bpd of crude oil, is impacted by the oil industry. Natural gas is a by-product of oil drilling but it is expensive to capture and liquefy for transportation. So the easiest and cheapest alternative is to burn it off into the atmosphere.
When Agip first came to Akaraolu in 1972, the villagers danced in celebration. The oil company was going to construct a road to its flow station near the village, greatly improving transportation and trade between Akaraolu and neighbouring villages. But the town's council of elders said that no one from Agip accurately defined a "gas flare" or warned of its potential effects on the village.
"They did not tell the chiefs that this is what the flare will do," said Adabu Ebere, one of the town's schoolteachers. "There was no education of the chief." He stared at the twisting column of fire leaping above the tops of coconut trees and said that no one has danced in joy in Akaraolu since it was turned on.
Towering into the African sky nearly 300 feet, the flares waterfall roar can be heard a half a mile away. Conversations in Akaraolu, whose perimeter is only 300 yards from the flare tower, must be spoken at top volume, repeated continuously or abandoned altogether. The village's residents have grown accustomed to yelling at one another.
And of course, there's the heat. It's rarely cool in the Niger Delta, Nigeria's humid and swampy southern region. But it's never less than sweltering in Akaraolu. Temperatures likely exceed daytime highs by 10 to 30 degrees, with the heat eventually becoming deadly as one approaches the flare stack.
On a recent day, the intersection leading to the main highway-the point of the village closest to the flames-temperatures were in excess of 125 degrees, the pavement painful to walk on with bare feet. Few people linger in that location on a trip to or from the village. Palm trees ringing the flare site in a 200-yard radius are brown and brittle and villagers say the water is too hot for fish to live.
"Yes, it is very difficult," said Ebere who was keeping an eye on the school children as they chased a soccer ball through a nearby field. The school is the closest community building to the flare and it too seems to be keeping watch over the students exercise. "When the sun is high, we feel the heat of the flare area because it is too close. Sometimes the noise, it disturbs our ears so we have to shout for the students to understand."
But the noise and the heat are only the most obvious symptoms of living in an impoverished village in an oil-rich land. In a sweltering oven of a room decorated with old Christian-themed calendars and battered chairs, the village's council of elders enumerates other woes.
Corrugated zinc rooftops corrode at an accelerated rate because of the air pollution; women miscarry more frequently because of the heat and the stress; when there's more gas for the flare to consume, the earth trembles and the buildings crack; men urinate blood because of some undiagnosed problem villagers attribute to the flare; their children have never seen starlight because of light pollution; and sometimes "we'll move like a madman and men will lose their brains."
Saturday Olimini, the town's secretary, holds the frustrating job of speaking on behalf of the community to the state government, the oil company and visiting journalists. It's frustrating because no one seems to care about the flares effects on Akaraolu's residents; letters of complaint to Agip have gone unanswered and the government is unresponsive to the towns plight.
The only time government representatives have ever visited the village, in fact, was when some residents blockaded the road leading to the flow station, refusing to leave until a meeting with Agip officials had been arranged. Mobile Police, the government's feared rapid-reaction force, promptly arrived to arrest several men and dismantle the roadblock. "We suffer here. We plenty suffer," Olimini said on behalf of towns top official, Chief Steward Job, who was collapsed in a nearby chair wearing a white undershirt and tattered pants, apparently too fatigued to speak on his own behalf. "The effect of the light is too much... We need help from our federal government. We are crying out and writing letters."
No amount of crying, however, has doused a single flare in the Niger Delta, where the screaming towers of fire consume about 2 bn cf of natural gas per day, the energy equivalent of 360,000 barrels of crude oil. The only thing that seems likely to bring darkness back to the Delta at night is the promise of money: Oil companies are responding to the fact that international consumers, while still solidly reliant on oil, are beginning to create a demand for natural gas.
And demand is what drove a joint venture between Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, TotalFinaElf and Agip to open the Bonny Terminal Liquid Natural Gas Plant in March. The companies predict that the facility will eventually utilize all the gas currently flared into the African, making the wasteful and harmful practice obsolete by 2008. The other three major oil companies extracting oil in Nigeria have made similar pledges.
While the 2008 deadline is encouraging, people in Akaraolu are less than enthusiastic about the news. Such promises are nothing new. In 1988 the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation incorporated a natural gas company to develop facilities to use the gas, but to date the resulting projects only use about 5 % of all natural gas produced in the region.
Regulations meant to encourage oil companies to reduce or eliminate gas flares have been in place as far back as 1969, but the fires still burn, mainly because the cost to the oil companies of turning off the flares far exceeded the fine for keeping them turned on. In 1998, the federal fine for gas flaring was raised from a low of four cents per 1,000 standard cf of gas to an only slightly higher level of 11 cents.
Therefore, until it makes economic sense for oil companies to replace firelight with starlight in Akaraolu, people like Saturday Olimini will continue to sweat, yell and pass blood through their bowels. Only when abrupt silence and pitch darkness engulf the village will anyone believe that the gas flare that has been a permanent fixture in their lives will finally be gone. "As God has greeted man, because of this light, we cannot be happy again," Olimini said at the end of the day. "The effect of this flare is unconscionable."