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The government could do more to stem illegal bunkering and refining of crude oil

Scores of people were recently burnt to death from an explosion during an illegal refining of crude oil at Abaezi forest in Egbema community, Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area of Imo State. At least 109 bodies have so far been recovered from the explosion site, according to reports. Against the background that last October, some 25 people, including minors, were burnt to death at an illegal refinery in Rivers State, there is an urgent need to address this criminal activity that negatively impacts on the nation’s economy and put the lives of citizens at risk.

Apart from the economic challenges of crude oil theft in Nigeria, the environmental degradation associated with illegal oil refineries require urgent attention. Indeed, the impact of illegal refineries on the Niger Delta environment has raised questions of great concern in the minds of the inhabitants of the region. This hazardous illegal refining process has led to many fatal accidents, particularly in the Niger Delta, a polluted region already blighted by oil spills in farmland, creeks, and lagoons. The people of the region have suffered polluted air, contaminated environment, degraded forests, biodiversity loss and high atmospheric temperatures.

Illegal refining is common in the Niger Delta as impoverished locals break pipelines, extract crude oil and process to make fuel for sale. The illegal refining process is very basic and begins with stealing of crude oil, called bunkering, from pipelines, pouring the product into tanks where it is boiled at high temperatures. The extracts are highly flammable and could within seconds cause untold devastation, including deaths if improperly handled. The government said these refiners steal about 200,000 barrels of the 1.5 million barrels of crude oil Nigeria produces per day.

These unwholesome activities are pervasive in the creeks of Niger Delta and the forests of Imo State. Regardless, they impact people in faraway places like Port Harcourt, where black sooth often inundates the air, and causing health and environmental problems. The direct casualties are usually the desperate labourers who are often compelled to earn a living in these dungeons. They suffer avoidable gruesome deaths and untold injuries. Some of these frequent terrible events are unreported either because they are on a lesser scale, or the owners of these contraptions cover up the incidents.

Recently, the Nigerian Navy, in collaboration with the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), began what is considered its biggest operation, with the deployment of 40 ships, five helicopters and 200 boats for “Operation Dakatar Da Barawo” (stop the thief) across the region. The new operation would involve dominating the nation’s backwaters through aggressive and intelligence-driven patrols. It would also be dedicated to monitoring pipelines, blocking identified strategic estuaries to prevent conveyance of stolen crude oil from onshore to sea and to maintain credible presence along the coastline of areas prone to crude oil theft. This initiative became necessary considering recent reports of massive revenue losses which compelled all efforts to be emplaced to curtail the wanton crude oil theft and illegal bunkering of crude oil in the nation’s maritime environment.

It is the federal government’s statutory responsibility to stop illegal bunkering and refining of crude oil in the country. But the vast expanse of the nation’s maritime domain makes it expedient for critical stakeholders to emplace more robust collaborative engagements to surmount these crude oil theft, illegal oil refining and other maritime security challenges. That is also the only way to put an end to avoidable tragedies like the fire incident at Egbema community in Imo State.

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