Issuing a landmark ruling that opens the way for compensation claims against oil conglomerates, a court in Nigeria has declared the flaring of natural gas illegal.
Justice C. V. Nwokorie, of the high court of Benin City, ruled on Monday that toxic flares that burn off natural gases, a by-product of oil extraction, contravened provisions of the Nigerian constitution guaranteeing citizens the right to life and human dignity.
He was ruling in a case brought against oil giant Royal Dutch Shell by the Iwerekan community of the Niger Delta.
Shell, which controls nearly half of the country's oil production capacity, and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), immediately issued notice of an appeal. They have one month to challenge the ruling.
If it stands, it could open the way for residents of the oil-rich Niger Delta to sue the oil companies, Chima Williams one of the lawyers representing the local community that brought the case to court, told IRIN.
"Under Nigerian law, the parties who suffer from the violation of a law can seek damages or compensation," Williams said.
The giant flares that pump clouds of black toxic smoke into the skies of the Niger Delta contribute more greenhouse gas emissions than any other single source in sub-Saharan Africa, according to environmentalists Friends of the Earth.
The Iwerekan community in Delta State was supported in its case by Environmental Rights Action, Friends of the Earth Nigeria, and the Climate Justice Programme.
Delta residents say the flares, which have been burning since oil production began in the 1950s, have seriously harmed the environment.
Domestic animals and wildlife are disoriented by the constant flares as they are unable to tell the difference between day and night, while crop yields have been damaged by consequent acid rain, they say.
But even if the appeal against the ruling is thrown out, gas flaring cannot be stopped without billions of dollars and several years worth of further investment.
Nine years ago, the government set a 12-year target to end gas flaring and most oil companies have said they are on track to meet the 2008 deadline - bar the largest producer, Shell.
Don Boham, spokesman for Shell, said the company and its Nigerian partners have invested US $2 billion in the last five years in projects aimed at putting the flared gas into economic use. A further expenditure of US $1.85 billion will enable Shell to end all gas flaring in its operations by 2009, a year later than the government target, he said.
Boham blamed the Nigerian government for the delay as it had failed to meet its funding obligations in the joint venture with Shell.
"The original target date... was predicated on the joint venture programme being fully funded to deliver the required gas-gathering projects. This was not achieved," said Boham.
For the first 40 years of oil production in Nigeria, all natural gas occurring in the course of oil production was simply burned away because oil companies were discouraged by the huge investments required to harness the gas.
While revenues estimated at over US $2.5 billion yearly were lost through flaring, this also became a major source of conflict with oil communities that complained of being cheated out of the oil wealth produced on their land while being left simultaneously to suffer the environmental consequences.
In the past decade, investments have been made to utilise the wasted gas, which is reputed to be a cleaner energy source than crude oil.
In September, work began on the West Africa Gas Pipeline which will transport Nigerian natural gas from the oil fields of the Niger Delta along the coast to Ghana, via Benin and Togo, promising cheaper and more reliable power for millions of residents by the end of 2006.
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