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That giant, roaring, gas torch next door

By Greg Campbell Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2001


For 30 years, no one in this small fishing village has seen a dark or tranquil night.

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The 2,000 residents know that, once the sun sets behind the mangroves, its light will be replaced by the glow from a roaring natural-gas flare close to the village's edge.

Over the waterfall-like din of the 300-foot-high tower of flame, conversations go on at a holler. The fire pushes temperatures 10 to 30 degrees higher than the usual 90-plus readings here in this swampy, tropical region of the Niger Delta.

But the villagers' bizarre, round-the-clock coexistence with the giant torch may be entering its final years. Rising international demand for natural gas has sparked moves to capture the fuel from Nigeria's flares rather than burn it as waste. All six international oil companies operating in the delta have committed to turning off their flares by 2008.

The more than 100 flares dotting the Niger Delta have for years been criticized by environmental groups, who say the smoke and flames damage the air quality in the ecologically fragile delta and contribute to global greenhouse gases. Human Rights Watch estimates that Nigerian gas flares have released 35 million tons of carbon dioxide and 12 million tons of methane a year.

"Gas flaring in Nigeria is one of the world's largest sources of global warming pollutants," says Stephen Mills, director of the Sierra Club's International Program.

In most other oil-producing countries, operators are required to reinject the natural gas byproduct back into the ground if they are not recapturing it for future sale as fuel. But the delta's geography makes reinjection difficult and costly.

Nigeria, the fifth-largest supplier of crude oil imported into the US, is the world leader in flaring. Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, the largest field operator in the country, alone burns 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas into the sky daily, according to its 2000 annual report.

Akaraolu's flare is owned by the Italian oil company AgipPetroli. Repeated calls and e-mails to Agip spokesmen in Italy and Nigeria were not returned.

Like the other companies that extract a combined average of 2 million barrels of crude oil per day from the delta, Agip has found it cheaper and easier to burn the gas than to capture it. There is virtually no market for the fuel in Nigeria and the cost of liquifying and transporting it to foreign buyers has - until recently - been too steep to justify.

But increasing demand for cleaner-burning fuels, particularly in Europe, has made oil companies reconsider the cost-effectiveness of flaring in Nigeria.

Shell estimates that by 2020, up to 50 percent of the fuel requirements for power generation in Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation countries could be met by natural gas. Shell notes in its 2000 annual report that electricity providers are moving away from high- carbon fuel such as coal and turning more and more toward cleaner-burning natural gas.

But European energy trends matter little to the residents of Akaraolu, who have pleaded for years that the flare 300 yards from their village boundary be extinguished.