For a long time now, oil spill response and prevention have been one of the major concerns of oil companies, stakeholders, regulatory agencies and governments. This is as a result of the fact that oil spillage causes significant harm to the environment, destroys local livelihoods and places human health at serious risk.
The cause of the spillage is one or more of the combinations of poor maintenance of oil infrastructure, corrosion, equipment failure, sabotage and theft. Experts say oil spill is a form of pollution caused by the release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment, especially the marine ecosystem, due to human activity. Not stressing much on the fact, the negative impacts caused in the processes of oil exploration and production are no less of commercial and environmental catastrophes, the world over.
Since Nigeria discovered the ‘black gold’ in Oloibiri, in 1956, there has been a resultant environmental degradation from gas flaring, dredging of larger rivers, oil spillage and reclamation of land due to oil and gas extraction across the Niger Delta region. Chiefly as a result of intensified petroleum exploration and production since the 1960s, oil spillage has likewise intensified.
However, for the last decade, in particular, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC), a wholly-owned Shell subsidiary which operates an unincorporated joint venture (SPDC JV), has been working to eliminate spills from its operational activities and to lower the scale of oil pollution in its operations.
According to the “Nigeria Briefing Notes 2020,” the SPDC JV, in 2019, reduced operational spills to its lowest levels and significantly reduced breaches from wellheads and cleaned up more spill sites than ever before. The energy company, in the review period, reported a decrease of 46.6 per cent or seven operational spills, relative to 15 spills recorded in the previous year of 2018. Not undermining illegal activities of oil theft, pipeline vandalism and others inhibiting a normal operating environment for its operations, the SPDC has remained resilience in accordance with its policy to eliminate spills from its operational activities. In fact, when a leak is identified, reports say the SPDC JV team responds to contain any of such spilled oil and clean up. In 2019, the company remediated 130 sites.
That said, there is no doubt that, as a company operating to the same technical standards as other Shell companies globally, there is still much work to do to get the company to its target of “Goal Zero” in all spills, operational and third-party vandalism.
But through a solid strategy, active partnerships, closer community engagements, bold security and new surveillance equipment, the SPDC has been steadily making good progress in the areas of performance, illegal activity, response and investigation, remediation and clean-up in Ogoniland.
Shell has a global ambition to achieve no harm and no leaks across all its operations. This is known as “Goal Zero.” To reduce the number of operational spills in Nigeria, the SPDC JV has focused on implementing its ongoing work programme to appraise, maintain and replace key sections of pipelines and flow lines. In 2019, SPDC completed another 30 kilometres of new pipelines, bringing the total laid over the last eight years to around 1,330 kilometres.
As clearly cited, there was a significantly reduction of operational spills of over 100 kilograms to seven incidents and 28 tonnes of crude in 2019, compared to 15 incidents and 413 tonnes in 2018. This shows that on a year-on-year, there was a reduction of more than 90 per cent by volume, returning the joint venture to its trend of reducing operational spills.
Community engagement and the ongoing commitments from government agencies have also helped shorten its response times to incidents. SPDC’s average time to complete the clean-up of free and/or residual spilled oil has halved from 13 days in 2016 to seven days in 2019. Closer engagement with communities has helped SPDC to access spill locations more quickly, meaning on average that joint investigations now commence within three days in 2019 compared to six days in 2016.
However, the challenge of preventing spills relating to sabotage and theft by third parties remains. These illegal activities accounted for 95 per cent of the SPDC JV spill incidents in 2019, a similar proportion to previous years.
Despite preventive efforts, spilled volumes from illegal activities increased to around 2,000 tonnes of crude in 2019, compared with around 1,600 tonnes in 2018.
RESPONSE AND INVESTIGATION
When a leak is identified, production is suspended, and efforts made to contain any spilled oil. The SPDC regularly test its emergency spill response procedures and capability to ensure staff and contractors can respond rapidly to an incident.
In line with government regulations, a Joint Investigation Visit (JIV) team at interval usually visits the spill site to establish the cause and volume of oil spilled. The team comprises representatives from SPDC, regulators, government security agencies, state governments and communities.
In addition to responding to recent spill incidents, the SPDC JV has continued to identify and remediate legacy spill locations. In 2019 alone, 130 sites were remediated and 123 certified by Nigerian government regulators, compared to 116 certified and 45 remediated in 2018.
Regardless of the cause, the SPDC cleans up and remediates areas impacted by spills that come from its operations. In the case of operational spills, SPDC also pays compensation to communities impacted by the spill. Once the clean-up and remediation are completed, the work is inspected and, if satisfactory, approved and certified by Nigerian government regulators.
As a community-impact driven company, the SPDC works with a range of stakeholders in the Niger Delta to build greater trust in spill response and clean-up processes. Local communities take part in its remediation work for operational spills. In certain instances, some non-governmental organisations have also participated in joint investigation visits along with government regulators, SPDC and members of impacted communities to establish the cause and volume of oil spilled.
Also, SPDC has been working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2012 to enhance remediation techniques and protect biodiversity at sites affected by oil spills in its areas of operation in the Niger Delta. This work includes using bioremediation, a process that uses micro-organisms to naturally break down and, ultimately, remove oil contamination.
In 2019, SPDC and IUCN joined forces on the Niger Delta Biodiversity Technical Advisory Group, which also includes representatives from the Nigerian Conservation Foundation and Wetlands International. The groups have continued to work together to monitor biodiversity recovery of remediated sites. Four sites have been assessed and selected as pilot sites for monitoring. These sites represent three ecosystems in the Niger Delta: land, seasonal swamp and swamp.
The Niger Delta Panel, an independent scientific advisor, has also provided input on oil spill response and remediation of soil and groundwater contamination. Based on this, SPDC strengthened its approach in this area.
BIOREMEDIATION USING LAND FARMING TECHNIQUES
SPDC’s remediation practices are compliant with the Environmental Guidelines and Standards for the Petroleum Industry in Nigeria (EGASPIN). The techniques adopted by SPDC are believed to be the most effective for the soil and climate conditions in the equatorial heat of the Niger Delta. Bioremediation using land farming techniques is recognised internationally and often advocated by regulators such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment Agency in the United Kingdom. Its aim is to restore the land to conditions acceptable to human health and the environment and to stimulate the natural microbial processes that break down and use the carbon-rich oil contamination as a source of food and energy, ultimately leading to its removal.
Bioremediation has wider positive impacts, for example in developing local expertise and generating employment. SPDC, however does use other technologies where appropriate.
PREVENTING ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES
The SPDC JV has also been committed to minimising the impact of third-party incidents and spills. The company works with government agencies, non-governmental organisations and communities to proactively minimise spills from illegal activity.
It does so by using simplified zonal pipeline maps to enhance targeted response to third-party interference and prevent incidents from occurring. Since 2017, SPDC has also been able to remove more than 523 illegal theft points.
The company has implemented anti-theft protection mechanisms, such as anti-tamper locks and steel cages for wellheads. Around 301 cages have been installed so far and around 80 more are planned for 2020 that would all come with CCTV technology. In 2019, three breaches of the cages were recorded out of 300 attempts. As a result, wellhead-related losses significantly dropped from about 30 kilobyte per day in 2016 to less than one kilobyte per day in 2019 across all its operations.
SPDC has also implemented several initiatives and partnerships to raise awareness on the negative impact of crude oil theft and illegal oil refining. Examples include community-based pipeline surveillance, radio jingles and the promotion of alternative livelihoods through Shell’s youth entrepreneurship programme, Shell LiveWIRE.
CLEAN UP IN OGONILAND
SPDC has been working with the relevant stakeholders to implement the 2011 United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Report on Ogoniland.
Over the last eight years, SPDC has taken action on all, and completed most, of the UNEP recommendations addressed specifically to it as operator of the joint venture. The UNEP report has recommended the creation of an Ogoni Trust Fund with $1 billion capital to be co-funded by the Nigerian government, the SPDC JV and other operators in the area. Since then, the SPDC JV has remained committed to contributing its share of $900 million over five years to the fund and made $10 million available in 2017 to help set up the Hydrocarbon Pollution and Remediation Project (HYPREP), an agency established by the federal government to lead the clean-up effort.
In 2018, the SPDC JV deposited a further $170 million into the escrow account to fund HYPREP’s activities, to complete its first-year contribution of $180 million. Also, in 2019, it contributed the next tranche of $180 million. At the end of 2019, the total contribution made was $360 million which represents the full amount due for the two years.
SPDC has also been working with the Bodo community and others to clean up areas affected by two operational spills in 2008. A memorandum of understanding which granted SPDC access to begin the clean-up was signed in 2015 and two contractors were selected to conduct the clean-up, overseen by an independent project director. The clean-up consists of three phases: removal of free phase surface oil, remediation of soil and planting of mangroves and monitoring.
The removal of surface oil which started in September 2017 was completed in August 2018, while the field remediation activities started in November 2019 followed by a contract procurement process to select remediation contractors. Since then, 800 community workers have been medically checked, assessed for their swimming ability to ensure they can safely respond to incidents in rivers and creeks, and trained to International Maritime Organisation oil spill response Levels one and two.