Sat, Dec 10, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Burning the midnight oil

Oil and natural gas have made Nigeria the second wealthiest nation in Africa. But there is a downside

By Lydia Polgreen  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , EBOCHA, NIGERIA

The sun had almost set, and another glum happy hour arrived at One for the Road. Veronica, its proprietor, wordlessly put out her white plastic chairs and tables, checked her stock of chilled beer and waited for paying customers. There was no need to switch on the lights. Across the street from her tavern, day and night, burns a ghastly, eternal flame.

"It is always like this," Veronica said, gesturing at the columns, more than 61m high, of vertical flame that leap and roar from a tangle of pipelines at the oil facility station across the road.

"Every day, every night. We no get darkness."

All across Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta, hellish towers of fire throw a peculiar auburn glow across the horizon, scorching the communities that live under them and sending dark columns of smoke into the sky. They are fueled by natural gas, which is found along with the Bonny Light crude that makes Nigeria the second wealthiest nation in Africa, after South Africa.

The gas is a highly valuable product used to fuel industry across the power-hungry globe, and Nigeria has more than 600 trillion cubic feet (182 trillion cubic meters) of it, making it one of the largest reserves in the world. If harnessed and put to use, experts say, Nigerian gas could light the whole continent for the better part of a millennium.

But for decades there has been no way to capture it because oil companies and the Nigerian government, which is a majority partner in all the oil operations in the country, had not built the infrastructure to make use of it. The market for natural gas inside Nigeria is tiny and exporting it requires pipelines and other infrastructure that cost billions of dollars to build.

Symbolic Flares

And so for decades it has simply been burned off, or flared. In Ebocha, which is home to an oil plant run by the Italian oil company Agip, the flares have been ablaze since the early 1970s, residents said. Over the years flares have become a blazing symbol of how the Nigerian government and its partners in the oil business have sucked endless wealth from this region, leaving its residents to suffer the environmental consequences of oil extraction while reaping little economic benefit.

That is supposed to change soon. In an effort to eliminate flaring -- which environmental activists say takes a heavy toll on the health of people, crops and animals -- and exploit this potentially lucrative resource, the Nigerian government is requiring that all flares be snuffed by 2008 and for gas exports to climb to 50 percent of current oil exports.

Oil companies are furiously building facilities to collect and ship the gas in an effort that will cost US$15 billion. Flaring is down to 40 percent of what it was at its peak, and the country is exporting 500 billion cubic feet (152 billion cubic meters) of gas, according to the Nigerian government. The World Bank is helping build a gas pipeline that will connect Nigeria to several of its coastal neighbors, creating a wider market in a power-hungry region.

Pressure from environmentalists to end the practice is high and this month a Nigerian court ruled that flaring violates the human rights of people who live nearby.

Just about everyone in Ebocha seems eager to see the flames snuffed, but many people find it hard to imagine this place without them. The flares quite literally define the place: Its name means place of light.

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