By Jude Ikenna Msc, OSMER
The Niger Delta is the hub of oil and gas industry in the country, and consequently has been greeted with serious environmental impacts and abuses in the course of the resource exploitation. Thanks to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Act that mandates investors to carry out an environmental assessment aimed at predicting potential impacts associated with proposed projects to aid the governing authorities in decision-making as to whether or not to approve projects.
Hence, EIAs are planning tools that are generally accepted as integral components of sound decision-making in developmental projects including those of oil and gas. The principal objective of an EIA is to predict and address potential environmental concerns at an early stage of projects planning and design. In most cases, EIAs of oil and gas projects are approved as the industry remains the major driver of Nigerian economy. Every EIA report should have an environmental management plan so long as potential impacts exist.
An Environmental Management Plan (EMP) is a component of the EIA report that details how identified impacts are to be monitored, mitigated and managed during projects life span. It is suggested on the basis of the identified impacts in the EIA. Hence, EIA and EMP assist planners and regulatory authorities in the decision-making process by identifying the key impacts/issues and formulating mitigation measures.
These mitigation measures are the practices that ensure the safety and sustainability of the environment in the course of carrying out proposed projects. EMP comprehensively covers all aspects of the natural and human environment so that adverse impacts of projects, if any, are taken care of so that projects do not create any hazard or negatively affect the quality of life for generations in and around the host communities.
Among the challenges facing environmental management amidst oil and gas exploitation in the Niger Delta are inappropriate mitigation measures and lack of strict enforcement of the implementation of such measures by relevant government regulatory agencies. A critical look at the extent of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta clearly shows that 'something is wrong somewhere.' It is true that some of the oil and gas facilities were constructed before the EIA Act was passed in Nigeria, but the act also makes provision for Environmental Effects Evaluation (EEE) for such ongoing projects so as to enable operators evaluate and proffer remedial measures for any associated impacts.
To make progress in the Niger Delta case, it is imperative that issues like regulatory requirements, EIA process and methodology including baseline studies, identification of key issues and consideration of alternatives, impact analysis and remedial measures be done in an effective, transparent and systematic manner with stakeholders and local people openly involved where necessary. Impact monitoring and mitigation plans have to be followed as stated in EIA reports and strictly supervised by regulators.
A number of civil society organization like GASIN and the National Coalition on Gas Flaring and Oil Spills in the Niger Delta (NACGOND) have taken bold steps towards questioning EIA processes in Nigeria and advocating for transparent and effective environmental management in the Niger Delta, seeing the visible impacts pressing upon many local and helpless host communities.
GASIN, has, in the last three years, trained many local people on EIA, Health Safety and Environment (HSE), Joint Investigation Visits (JIV) and other related topics in an effort to enhance the capacity of host communities and broaden their understanding of the various environmental issues accompanying resource exploitation activities going on around them and for the overall safety of the Niger Delta at large. More of this gesture of concern is encouraged and recommended for other CSOs and agencies that are touched by the severity of the degradation in the Niger Delta environments.
In some communities, both surface water bodies and aquifers are polluted, with the atmosphere constantly polluted by combustion products from gas flaring and volatile organic compounds arising from oil spill sites. Human beings and animals living in those areas are constantly exposed to toxic substances, some of which are carcinogens. Crops also bio-accumulate and bio-concentrate many of the pollutants from their surroundings. Also, many communities hosting giant gas facilities do not have any emergency evacuation plans in place or muster points in case of accidents, explosions or related physical hazards.
While no one prays for accidents to happen, operators and the Nigerian government should not wait until it becomes too late before giving adequate attention to EMP included in EIAs and to the plight of the local people living in the midst of oil wells, flow stations, manifolds, gas plants, natural gas processing facilities, gas flares, pipelines, etc. Had the EIAs and EEEs been properly done, many of the impacts suffered presently in the Niger Delta would have been identified and addressed using appropriate EMPs, because a good EMP should have a long term perspective and make futuristic projections considering the developmental, expansion, decommissioning activities likely to take place in the project.
It is not yet late to rise to the demands of an effective environmental management system in the Niger Delta. The lingering environmental issues would definitely be addressed once high-level commitments to best practices are employed in the course of oil and gas exploitation. Agree with me that urgent attention is needed in the Niger Delta before issues escalate beyond control and remedy as they already threaten in some areas.