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Nigeria remains tough on gas flaring

by Carmen Gentile

Foreign oil firms in Nigeria are lobbying for the government to extend its deadline for an end to the wasteful practice of gas flaring, a request the government appears disinclined to grant.

A Shell executive in Lagos told reporters this week the company would petition for an extension past the December deadline to curb gas flaring, saying the goal date is not reachable, Nigeria's Daily Champion newspaper reported.

Gas flaring is caused by the burning off of surplus combustive vapors during the natural gas extraction process. While petroleum firms say it is a necessary precaution to release excess pressure during the extraction process, it is considered by others to be a waste of the natural resource and a potential hazard to the environment.

Managing Director of Shell Petroleum Development Co. Nigeria Ltd. Mute Sumonu said while his company would ask for an extension into 2009, it would abide by Nigerian law if officials would not acquiesce.

Nigerian interest groups also sent a joint petition to the government, asking it to stay steadfast in its decision to make foreign petroleum companies accountable for their flaring.

"Since gas flaring contributes to global warming and the climate change crisis, it is of concern to citizens around the world. As fellow human beings, we also demand the end to the suffering of the Niger Delta people whose lives, health and livelihoods are harmed for the benefit of greedy multinational corporations," read the petition.

In response to the Shell request this week, Nigeria's Department of Petroleum Resources has already said it would not change the deadline for ending gas flaring. Officials at the DPR even noted that fines would be issued to those firms found flaring.

Shell and other companies operating in the oil and gas-rich Niger Delta claim, however, that they cannot comply with protocols calling for an end to the practice by the end of the year due to the continuing violence in the region, which they say prevents them from installing the required infrastructure to curtail flaring.

Militant groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta have been waging a steady campaign of attacks aimed at foreign oil interests and Nigerian forces in the delta for more than two years. In 2007 alone, more than 200 people were kidnapped and several Nigerian police and soldiers killed.

Since the 1970s, Nigeria, Africa's No. 1 oil producer, has pumped more than $300 billion worth of crude from the southern delta states, according to estimates. But high unemployment in the delta, environmental degradation due to oil and gas extraction, and a lack of basic resources such as fresh water and electricity have angered some of the region's youth and incited them to take up arms.

Nigeria's petroleum industry has also been the focus of intense criticism from leaders as of late. Vice President Jonathan Goodluck, who hails from the delta, said last week that his country's oil wealth has been an economic curse over the last 50 years.

"The overdependence on oil has put an unpleasant bracket in our national economic freedom," said Goodluck.

About 95 percent of Nigeria's revenue is generated by oil and gas, resulting in billions of dollars in state funds every year, though much of the country remains impoverished and underdeveloped.

Meanwhile, one foreign energy firm hoping to make inroads into the Nigerian oil and gas sector has offered the government an undisclosed amount of money and promises of development for the Niger Delta in return for resource rights in the country.

The offer by Russia's Gazprom in January also includes a project for capturing the large quantities of gas burned off during oil and gas production, an offer that could prove particularly enticing to President Umaru Yar'Adua, who has been an outspoken proponent of ending the wasteful practice.

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