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Big bucks drive oil pipe sabotage in Niger Delta

Pipeline vandalism in the Niger Delta cost the state and oil companies $14-billion a year and devastated up to 52?000 hectares of land in 2014, according to new estimates by a leading Nigerian research and development group.

The way to stop the damage is not by militarising the volatile region but by providing jobs to unemployed youths and giving local residents a share in legitimate oil profits, says Stakeholder Democracy Network in a report that coincides with the 20th anniversary of the execution by the Nigerian government of writer and Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Pipeline vandalism – which sees infrastructure tapped to steal crude oil – has now reached epidemic proportions. The government’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency recorded more than 900 sabotage incidents last year across the 12?700km of pipes belonging to local and international companies.

The thefts range from small-scale pilfering to industrial-scale theft co-ordinated by and in collaboration with the Nigerian military, corporate executives and community leaders.

In some cases, say the authors who interviewed 83 people ranging from local chiefs and youths to government officials, the pipelines are deliberately “cracked” to create work.

“There is an implicit incentive to vandalise pipelines in return for clean-up contracts. The youth benefit from clean-up after every spill,” one interviewee said.

“Our friends that have gone to school, why are they still unemployed? I can crack pipe and earn money quickly,” said a man who admitted sabotaging pipelines.

Youths “vandalise to survive” in the absence of other job opportunities and ignore its long-term effect on their local environment and health, the report says: “The environmental impact is immense with an estimated 51?500 hectares devastated by oil spills in 2014 as a direct consequence of pipeline vandalism.

“In communities, the feeling of anger and demand for attention motivates vandals to interrupt pipelines at the expense of their environment and livelihoods, with many addicted to easy money from surveillance and clean-up contracts,” it said.

But the report’s authors point to several positive initiatives suggesting vandalism could be stemmed:

  • Nigeria’s Niger Delta Petroleum Resources has had few problems with vandalism. According to the authors, “it appears to pay its staff more than international oil companies as an incentive and to promote a culture of ownership over company internal values and processes”. A percentage of each barrel of oil produced goes to a community trust fund.
  • Addax Petroleum has avoided vandalism by employing community pipeline surveillance teams, including ex-military, with a mandate to patrol 1km lengths of pipeline.
  • Indorama Eleme Petrochemical company, which makes pharmaceutical raw materials, operates an equity-sharing model with six communities that together have a 7.5% stake in the company. The report said its pipelines were not damaged.

Vandalism is rife as community leaders and oil companies try to use “divide and rule” tactics, say the report’s authors. “Chiefs, paramount leaders, and youth and cult leaders … have used their power to their own personal advantage, creating divisions, wealth inequality and distorted power structures in communities. Oil companies, rather than intervening on a moral basis, have seen this as an opportunity to create factions in the community.”

A Shell spokesperson in Nigeria – a representative of the Shell Petroleum Development company – said it took several measures to limit the effect of the criminality. “However, theft, sabotage and illegal refining continue to be the main source of environmental damage in the Niger Delta today. It is vital that collaboration between operating companies, communities, the Nigerian government and its international partners is maintained and expanded,” he said.

The state, too, is held responsible for distrust among citizens. “The Nigerian state has failed to provide basic public services and security, allowing the social contract to breakdown. In the void that remains, international and national oil companies are often seen as a government proxy, spending millions of dollars in their operating locations.

“However, these efforts are not perceived to have the communities’ interests at heart, preferring to secure a short-term licence to operate as opposed to a long-term legacy in the region,” it says.

Shell acknowledges stemming vandalism and oil theft will be difficult because grand-scale oil theft is now very big business “with a concentrated and well-connected few earning hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues and profits every year”. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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