The Vice President, Health, Safety and Communication, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Tony Attah, in an interview speaks on the rising wave of oil theft in the Niger Delta region.
What is your take on the rising cases of oil theft in the Niger Delta region?
This menace is one that has been around for a very long time and, working with you, we have shown you a few things in the past. Imo River over-fly is in terrible situation. Also, around the Bodo-Bomu axis, we have a very similar situation going on. There you have lots of illegal refining activities, which are damaging the environment. This particular one is worthy of mention because of the scale.
A lot of times, we try to tell the world about the environmental devastation the country is experiencing; it’s too much to bear. I don’t know how much of the information that go out. So, this is a classical one; you have seen that vessel, you have seen the size. If not that it caught fire, we would not have been able to show you how bad the situation is. But, this is one of many.
The last time, we had two vessels bigger than what you have seen and that is the one that had some Ghanaians or so. This is not your usual situations where people say communities came for their daily bread. This is beyond poor hungry people. These are cartels involved in the whole criminality of stealing crude oil and it is a menace that must be stopped. This one, we believe, requires strong concerted effort by all parties. The industry alone cannot do it.
We need a lot of support from government, from the communities themselves, from security agencies and, as a matter of fact, from the international community. You can tell the risks; it is enormous and we hear that some of these situations are protected by very strong arms, which they bring to the risk of the region itself, getting back to the uncivil situation and we don’t want that. If you look at the situation, you can imagine how much that tanker would be able to hold and that entire inventory could spill into the environment. That really worries us.
There are two sides of it; the big players like these ones who steal crude for international sale, and then the smaller players, who actually refine the crude and sell. Those ones worry me from the environmental angle, because their efficiency is not up to 20 percent. Whatever they cannot refine, they just pour it into the river, and that is creating very severe damage to the environment. So, those are the issues that we are currently facing in the business and the industry.
What is the role of security agents protecting oil pipelines in the Niger in the face of the increasing cases of oil theft?
I think security is not a role for us. We don’t have our own security force. We don’t intend to ever have one. We have the government security forces and that is how it is supposed to be. We report to the Joint Task Force (JTF). I must commend the JTF for, without them, we would not have been in operation at all, and you will agree with me that the scale would have quadrupled if not for their effort. So, the JTF is doing its best. I am aware they are out there destroying a lot of illegal refineries. But, as I mentioned to you, this issue comes from a multiple fronts; you have the illegal refinery front and there are the ones that actually steal the crude and, may be, sale it in the international market. We have seen a lot of efforts with respect to reducing the amount of illegal refineries in the region, and that is some gain with respect to the restoration of the environment. Today, the estimate out there is about 150,000 barrels per day being stolen; that is almost $6 million that would have gone for meaningful purposes in the Niger Delta and the country as a whole were denied, but these barrels are stolen and the money goes into private pockets. If you have to go out there to fix the environment, that has to be additional cost. I have asked questions around. Is it just 150,000bpd? They say that is very conservative estimate because that is just the volume that we know is stolen from the pipelines. There are other criminals who steal directly from the well-head.
What is the effect of crude oil theft on the oil companies and the Niger Delta region?
The effect is very huge. As you have been told, each time, we have to shut down our operations. Like the incident that occurred recently on the Tran Niger Delta Pipeline; there were three points there that are open where they were stealing the oil, and as a responsible organisation, we cannot continue to produce through those lines, knowing that it will spill out and go into the environment. So, we shut down operation.
At the moment, we are losing almost 150,000 barrels, most of them from our land operations, coming on the Trans Niger Delta Pipeline from land to Bonny. So, all those are shortages. It is not lost of revenue to us alone, but also to the country.
Is it not possible to have traces of where these vessels are registered?
I guess that you are really asking the question all of are asking. That will be a good question for agencies that manage situations like that. But, I must say that our sympathy is also with the communities because they are heavily impacted by all these criminal activities.
Imagine the old lady, who ordinarily would have gone out with her canoe to fish to feed her family. She is now denied such an opportunity because of the pollution of the water. That is painful on every side. But, yes, the right agencies should be able to look into the situation and ensure that every vessel entering into the country is properly checked.
Who do you think are responsible for crude oil theft in the Niger Delta region?
At the moment, you are asking a question that is difficult for me to answer. This matter is supposed to be handled by government. Government is in charge of security; government is in charge of the waterfronts, and it is in charge of securing the nation as a whole. Who should we hold responsible?
Looking at the scale of the fire that gutted the vessel on top of the Trans Niger Delta Pipeline, is it not possible that people might have been trapped inside?
I will not know that. Again, you have to know how the explosion happened. If they had time to escape, may be, they did but if it was a sudden splash, then, I wouldn’t be surprised that people were trapped in there. Again, as I said, the vessel was burning, so it was very unsafe to get closer. That is part of the issue we have.
The burning vessel sat on our right of way. For the moment, the real help we need is for the government agencies to assist us in moving it away to a place where it does not create further risks. At the moment, the vessel sitting on the pipeline is a bigger risk for us. That will delay further our changes of opening the pipeline very soon. If it continues, it will have national effect, in respect of gas supply.
We thought that you have surveillance contractors, so what are they doing about this matter?
I don’t have that information, but you have to be fair on surveillance contractors. These are not armed but the intelligence we have continued to get on the activities of these oil thieves is that they always come heavily armed for their illegal operations. So, how much can unarmed civilians who are just walking on the right of way do to stop them. That is the issue and we are probable helpless in this case.
Is Shell making any move to assist communities affected by the fire incident at Bonny?
There is a law that supports compensation. In this case, by law nobody is entitled to compensation for a criminal activity like this. For sabotage, we don’t pay compensation. Everybody is at a loss. As I said upfront, my sympathy is with the common woman, who ordinarily is denied her daily up-keep as a result of these criminal activities. To be frank with you, I don’t see a subject of compensation.
Did you suspect any connivance with security agents in respect of how the vessel got to the Trans Niger Delta Pipeline?
I am unable to confirm that but we are also worried on how these types of huge vessels navigate all the waters and get to these kind of places undetected; but connivance, I cannot confirm.
Is it not baffling that an organisation like Shell does not have people who can investigate to find out those behind such acts?
That is the duty of the agencies that look after things like that. Our role is to report issues like that to the appropriate agencies. Like the recent fire incident in Bonny, we reported to government in line with what the joint venture agreement stipulates. Investigating beyond the boundary of our operations may be going too far. By the way, we may not even be competent to do so. So, we handed it to the right authorities. The least we can expect is that they will carry out the investigation. They are well-equipped to do that.
Do you think the government of Nigeria is lacking the political will to handle such matters? Are you not worried?
What I hear is three things from your loaded question. One is on political will. If you were asking me this question, maybe, early last year - I am a Nigerian - I would have been tempted to say that I don’t see that strong evidence of political will. But to be frank with you, today, I cannot say so. There have been a lot of efforts. I know what they (JTF operatives) are doing. I still report. I overfly myself and I see a lot of efforts.
But the absence of political will, maybe not. It may actually be due to the scale of the problem. Is the current political will huge enough to meet the scale of the problem? Has the problem gone too far? Maybe, that is where we are. I will not agree with you but if you are asking whether the government should do more, then, the government must surely do more.
What we are doing, very clearly, is not enough; if not, we should not be having these kinds of situations we always have. That is the big issue, but it has to be a source of worry for all of us.
How difficult is it? What does the law say?
I am not a lawyer, unfortunately; I cannot tell. We are also worried that in all of these, we are yet to see anyone brought to book to show an example that this will not be tolerated and it is not acceptable.