AKARAOLU, NIGERIA — For 30 years, no one in this small fishing village has seen a dark or tranquil night.
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.
"We suffer here. We plenty suffer," says Saturday Olimini, secretary for the town's council of elders. "The effect of the light is too much....We need help from our federal government. We are crying out and writing letters."
The Nigerian government - headed for most of the past 30 years by various military dictators until Olusegun Obasanjo's election as president in 1999 - receives about 80 percent of its annual revenue from oil royalties. Much of the income has been lost through corruption and mismanagement.
Critics of the flares - and of the damage from oil spills in the delta - have said that the Nigerian government puts profits ahead of the environment and the welfare of its citizens. The low federal fine for flaring - the equivalent of 11 U.S. cents per 1,000 cubic feet of gas - has made it cheaper to pay the penalty than build facilities to collect and transport the gas.
The villagers complain that the heat and the noise from the flare have scared away wild game and chased fish from the streams. Villagers say the soil is also affected, yielding smaller crops of cassava and potatoes each year. They also complain of a wide range of ailments - albeit medically undocumented - that they attribute to the flare, including respiratory problems in children and more frequent miscarriages.
Ironically, the flares burn off energy into the atmosphere within sight of villages that have no power - patches of darkness in a country suffering severe energy shortages nationwide.
After oil was discovered beneath Akaraolu, villagers danced in celebration when Agip built its flow station in 1972. They rejoiced when the company built a road near the village, a benefit which greatly improved transportation and trade between Akaraolu and neighboring villages.
But the town's council of elders says that no one from Agip told them what a "gas flare" was. "They did not tell the chief that this is what the flare will do," says Adabu Ebere, one of the town's schoolteachers.
Though villagers have long complained to Agip and the government - and legislation has been in place since 1969 to encourage oil companies to end or reduce flaring - it was only the lure of profit that, in the mid-1990s, led oil companies to explore options for saving the flared gas.
A joint venture between Agip, Shell, and TotalFinaElf opened the $4 billion Bonny Terminal Liquid Natural Gas Plant on the Nigerian Coast in 1996. The terminal began exporting natural gas to Europe in October 1999. Production was increased this past March, and the companies estimate that by 2003 the plant will process 870 million cubic feet of gas per day.
Chevron is also making strides to reduce flares and is now completing the second part of a three-phase gas-harnessing operation that will eventually process 680 million cubic feet of gas daily.
The companies predict that such facilities will eventually utilize all the gas currently flared into the African sky, making the wasteful practice obsolete by 2008.
For the villagers of Akaraolu, the first dark night can't come soon enough. Says Olimini: "The effect of this flare is unconscionable."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor