ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT: WHAT IT ENTAILS TODAY
Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a big deal at the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) but it comes with many challenges according to Dr M. N. Zagi whose Technical Services Unit at the agency looks after environmental evaluation. It’s interesting to find out the official perspectives of the major regulator of oil and gas industry in Nigeria on an issue like EIA which many environmental activists and commentators talk often about? Dr Zagi says that environmental issues today constitute one of the planks for resolving aspects of both community agitations and the just demands of federal laws for the protection of mother nature. In this regard, the Niger Delta imbroglio which has resulted in various anomies like killings, shut-ins, kidnap and general insecurity came in for a ready example of what is avoidable if proper environmental management can be maintained.
In this interview, he fields questions from far afield including the role his department is playing to maintain environmental probity with oil and gas projects; the so-called legacy issues in the oil-bearing communities; the challenges of regulating environmental issues in this day and age; and the inter-agency overflow of functions which sometimes snags the work of the government regulator. Excerpts:
DDH: We are interested to find out how you mean when you say that environmental issues now dog every project in the oil and gas sector in Nigeria?
Dr Zagi: The issue of environmentalism in this country evolved over a period of years. From the early 70s up to the mid-80s, there were very little proactive moves to safeguard the environment by the regulators. Some things happened in the 80s, we had a serious oil spillage at Funiwa and Forcados terminals. That sensitized people and there was a sudden agitation on the need to protect the environment. It gave us a kind of rude awakening and from that period, a lot of regulatory issues came on stream for protecting the environment. One of those issues was the need for environmental impact assessment which we started in the 1990s. Since then it has become a tradition that every major project in the oil industry has to go through environmental impact assessment. It’s simply a process whereby the project is superimposed on the environment, so that environmental impacts are predicted with a view to mitigating them. When that is done, I am sure the project will be sustainable and you will find that there will be no serious agitations as in the past.
DDH: Like what is happening now in the Niger Delta?
Dr Zagi: What is happening now in the Niger Delta is not as a result of lack of environmental impact assessments. It’s as a result of legacy issues. There are alot of legacy issues. Some of the oil companies have entered into what is called memorandum of understanding (MOU) with communities which over time, the companies reneged. And the problem with the mou was that it was not at top level. It was normally at the bottom level. Anybody under duress can take any agreement on behalf of companies. You now see that sometimes, companies don’t feel obligated by such agreements. It was not taken at top level, and what we always tell the oil companies to do is to go into a kind of sustainable development; issues that will address the problems of today without compromising the future. But over the years their major concern was ad-hoc arrangements, like, I will do this so that I can do this, just to get their business done. As time goes by, the evolving community members will say we don’t know about this. But if it were to be sustainable development, what even someone today can see, based on agreements with their forefathers of yesteryears, such agitations may not be there. So a lot of the issues that come up at the Niger Delta are as a result of these MOUs that are not being respected by the companies themselves simply because they were not entered into at the top level. And there are also the issues of maybe unemployment in the Niger Delta, issues of legacy in impacted sites. And the communities are now better informed, they are now being sensitized. Of course, there are also issues of vandalisation of facilities in order to attract compensation from the companies. I think majority of pollution there are caused by these vandalization. But in the industry, we have a kind of understanding that once it is vandalism, oil companies do not have any obligation to pay such compensations and then the cycle of agitations and restlessness continue.
DDH: When you talk of legacy issues, what are they?
Dr Zagi: When I say legacy issues, I was referring to those environmental impacts that happened many years ago and also those memoranda of understanding that were entered into many years ago of which the companies are reneging to implement. Most of those environmental impacts predate environmental guidelines and standards so are not necessarily as a result of vandalism or operational failures but as result of indiscriminate and uncontrolled waste discharges by operators then. When I say they predate, I mean like I earlier said, we evolved over the years and are still evolving regulation wise. In the early 90s, we talked about having indiscriminate discharges in the environment. After some years, we graduated to selected discharges, operators were allowed to discharge in certain environmental settings on attaining certain limits- effluent limitations. We have evolved from that now to what we call no discharge, irrespective of whatever the limits an operator obtains. In those years, you have industry discharging into the environment of say drill cuttings, waste oil, waste lubricants, etc. but now, we say whether you have attained these effluent limits, if it is in this sensitive environmental setting, you are not allowed to discharge. We have what we call discharge zones now, and our discharge zones are only when an operator is operating at 12 nautical miles away from the shoreline and two hundred feet of water depth. Even then you have to attain certain limitations. But any area outside this zone you cannot discharge certain wastes whatever limits you attain, like drill cuttings, produced water, spent mud, etc. That’s why I said there are legacy issues because in those days, there were indiscriminate discharges of oil field wastes because in those days our regulations were not stringent. But also in those days, there were no (community) agitations, there were no sensitizations. But people now are better informed. So these are legacy issues which must be cleared out and until that is done, communities will continue (to agitate). We are still having some cases from over twenty years ago where we had a spill and communities are asking for compensation now. These are the legacy issues am talking about.
DDH: Do you see an end to the community agitations?
Dr Zagi: Well, yes, I can see an end to it. The most important thing is to understand the root causes of community agitation. If we understand the root causes, we address them. I am sure when they are addressed, that will be the beginning of the end of the agitation. We all know what the problems are, like I said, unemployment. If all hands are on deck, and government are doing their own, if the oil operators are doing their own, and the communities are doing their own, I am sure that would be the beginning of the end, if not the end of the end of these agitations. So it is a kind of tripartite partnership of the government, the oil companies and the communities themselves.
DDH: Talking about environment now, is remediation part of the schedule?
Dr Zagi: Seriously. Because when we say legacy issues, we talk about environmental issues and their impact on the environment. And once there are environmental impacts, there must be remediation, to at least, as much as possible, put the environment back to its near pristine status. The environment polluted has to be remediated. It’s one of our core businesses here at the DPR.
DDH: The communities where remediation has been carried out has it led to better community relations?
Dr Zagi: In some cases, yes. I cannot cite some instances but I know that there are always better relations especially when the communities are involved in such remediation. You find that when communities are not involved in the process of remediation, there are still bound to be pockets of agitation. But when remediation involves the community, you find that at least there is better understanding in cooperation with the oil companies.
DDH: But if we are talking about bringing spoiled environments back to their pristine state, that sounds to me very scientific. Is the community involvement here concerned with monetary compensation?
Dr Zagi: We have to differentiate between remediation and compensation. When there is environmental pollution, normally the oil company responsible for that pollution will pay compensation to the affected community if that pollution is confirmed to be as a result of operational problems and not as a result of community interference on the facility. Be that as it may, even after you pay compensation, as an operator who polluted the environment, the onus is still on you to remediate that environment. Remediating that environment involves trying to clean that environment to at least a target level, if not a pristine level because you can hardly go back to the original level. There are a lot of techniques that are involved in remediation. First of all, it depends on the type of pollution. It depends on the environmental setting. And it also depends on the age of pollution. For whatever it is, most of the techniques that are employed to remediate these polluted sites are high-tech of which communities do not have the expertise. But whatever it is, when you involve them to a smaller extent, let them feel belonged to that remediation even if they are paid to do part of the menial jobs. At least, there will be an LTO, i.e. a license to operate issued by the host community because no matter how competent a contractor is, if he doesn’t have an LTO from the community, he will not find it easy to work.
DDH: Now the Ogoni people are one of the loudest in bemoaning the pollution of their land, does it mean that the kind of pollution done in their land is worse than in other places?
Dr Zagi: Like I said that is also one of the legacy issues which predated any serious legislative framework for environmental protection. You know there were serious pollution in Ogoni in the past and that was compounded by the Ogonis themselves because at the point when Shell wanted to do some remediation work, they were not allowed access. But many years after the incident, Shell was still carrying out its operations, until people became agitated and “better informed” before they started seeking for some form of remediation and compensation. Also the agitation for resource control is one issue of agitation by the Ogonis, etc.
DDH: In terms of EIA which you say is where we are now, how satisfied is DPR with the pace of compliance? Are there challenges or problems in the way of getting it totally right?
Dr Zagi: There are a lot of challenges in environmental impact assessment process. We have pockets of baseline data that are being collected over the years now. Because for you to do environmental impact assessment, you have to have the baseline data. We used to have one but that data needed to be revalidated. Up till now, it is not revalidated. We also need to have offshore data which we never had. Therefore, for EIA now, we have pockets of environmental baseline data as against having one acceptable baseline data which people should use to issue their EIA. The challenge now is, there are pockets of them but we need to collate them so that we need not to be wasting effort, time and money going every now and then to collect data because we want to do EIA. Another challenge we have in the Department is multiple regulation in the industry. We now have various departments or ministries that claim to have control over the environment. And that is understandable. If you look at the constitution, environment itself is not on the exclusive list, it’s either on the concurrent or residual list. In which case, even local governments or the states can have control over the environment. But we don’t have much problems with the local governments or the states. But at the federal level, there are various agencies that have responsibility for the environment based on the available laws of the land. The net effect of this is that the EIA process will become very cumbersome, it will become very expensive because the oil companies that we regulate will have to satisfy both the DPR and other regulatory agencies especially the Federal Ministry of Environment. We are looking forward to resolving this challenge. We attempted in 1999 to have a kind of MOU before we had a hitch but we shall continue to pursue that. But that remains a major challenge that up till now we are not able to solve. However, our enabling laws and regulations are very clear since 1967/69. Even the law that set up FEPA recognizes the existence of DPR, and states that it should play a supportive role to the DPR on oil pollution as the DPR may request from time to time. But up till now, the Federal Ministry of Environment refuses to play such a supportive role as far as oil pollution is concerned. Agreed our legislature is evolving too, for sure we are evolving to reach that stage where before you enact any law you must look at extant laws and if they are in conflict with proposed laws, they are harmonized to avert these problems. Where you don’t have such robust legislation, the answer is to have an MOU between these agencies which have oversight functions over an issue. For environment, we have Federal Ministry of Environment, NEMA, NIMASA and DPR. So the ideal thing to do now is to have an MOU, we identify the areas of conflict and draw lines of responsibilities and authorities. So until this is resolved, the oil operators have no option than to keep satisfying the multiple regulators. It’s a pity that the cost of the barrel will increase with its implication on the economy. Three, we have problems of implementing EIAs themselves, both human and financial. Because every EIA has a kind of outcome in terms of mitigating measures which must be implemented. Implementation of such measures has ordinarily to be monitored by the DPR. It’s one area that we are lagging in implementing the post-EIA recommendations. Another area is design-mitigation. Our EIA processes also evolved. We know our shortcomings, limitations and challenges. We now phase out our EIA processes; it takes as long as that project takes to complete an EIA process. We do that so that we will be able to mitigate some environmental impacts in the engineering design of the project. We wouldn’t just want to allow the operational mitigation measures, so we try as much as possible to see that over 50% of the impacts identified in the EIA are design-mitigated. That is why the process has to take as long as the engineering continues. There is no point, as is being done now by other agencies, having an EIA done before or after the design has been frozen. EIAs are normally done pari-passu because if you approve an EIA when the design is on- going , there are bound to be some changes in the concept from the engineers. We have had such experiences in the past. You find a situation where you approve an EIA but the design concept changes and they say, no we are not going to use an FSO, we are going to use an FPSO; we are going to drill five wells instead of ten. So, if these changes happen, definitely, the outcome of the EIA will change. That is why we phase out the EIA process; it continues for as long as the engineering continues, giving final approval only when the detailed engineering design is frozen. So we favour design mitigation especially as I said since we don’t have enough manpower to go and monitor every project at the operational stage.
DDH: So with all these the heavy workload of your department is explained?
Dr Zagi: Oh very busy schedule. If I may put it in my own words, this is an all-in-one section, because you find that every section of our department requires our input, whether you are drilling, whether you are producing, whether you are into marketing, or you are into transportation, you will require environmental clearance at one point. So you can imagine, if any well is being drilled, if any pipelines is being laid, if any FSO is being design or constructed…whatever you have, they must come to environmental unit for one approval or another. That is why we are so busy here, we have to serve every other unit. And our work starts from the day the project is conceived to the day the project is abandoned. So, it’s not just for you to monitor an X number of projects, but also for you to monitor them from the day of conception to the abandonment. Whereas an engineer can design and leave but we monitor until the day of abandonment. So, there is the need to be conversant with the history of whatever project that we have. We need to find out the status and we make sure that at least we are in tune.
DDH: Whose task is it to get you involved? If somebody is starting a new project and they don’t write to inform you how do you get to know?
Dr Zagi: Very simple. There is no project in the oil industry that does not come through DPR. The project initiator may be ignorant of the environmental expectations, but by the time he goes to the relevant sections of DPR with which he wants to do his own services, they will refer him. Besides, we have what we call annual work programme for all the operators. Every operator has to come one day in a year to tell the department of what plans he has on how to operate his field. At that time, those who don’t know the requirements of the department will know.