Monday, 23 January 2012

Natural Gas: To flare or not to flare

Joachim Ibeziako Ezeji

I am not really enjoying the current debate amongst environmental stakeholders over the flaring of natural gas or otherwise. I have this nauseating feeling that this is uncalled for. It is uncalled for because the government policy on the environment should naturally be binding on all stakeholders. The issue of fixing and unfixing deadlines to gas flaring is risky.

I say so because the issue of stopping or not stopping gas flaring in Nigeria appears to be running on a roller coaster track, with alarming swoops downwards followed by exhilarating zooms upwards, and none of the riders quite sure what is going to happen next.

It is already stale news that Africa possesses abundant natural resources. That the abundance of these natural resources is yet to transit into economic well being to Africans is totally a different discuss. It is a fact that Africa possesses 99% of the world’s chrome resources, 85% of its platinum, 70% of its tantalite, 68% of its cobalt, and 54% of its gold, among other minerals. The continent has significant oil and gas reserves; the extent of which has not been definitely measured. It produces more gem quality diamonds than anywhere else.

The numbers speak for themselves; in 2006, annual FDI rose to a historic high of US$38.8bn, a record growth of 78% from 2004. According to the UN World Investment Report, the serious FDI cash was concentrated in a few industries, notably oil, gas and mining. And six oil- producing countries- Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Equitorial Guinea, Nigeria and Sudan – consumed nearly half of it.

But beyond the economic benefit; is the sheer inability of many African governments to manage the accruing environmental problems associated with exploration and development of these natural resources. Governments seem to be keener on the revenue coming into its purse than the general well being of the host environment.

In South Africa there are some environmental issues that have not really caught the attention of the government but the academia is now pushing it and this is the release of uranium into the atmosphere as well as the volume of tailings that is created with the mining of uranium.

According to Prof. Judith Kinnaird who is also a geologist and lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand it is a serious concern that much uranium is being lost to the environment, through the burning of coal that contains uranium, which according to her should be raised as an issue in intensifying debate on the reintroduction of nuclear energy.

There are many environmental issues that the government in Nigeria is yet to come to terms with in the oil and gas industry. One major environmental issue that the release or the reckless burning of gas into the atmosphere; another is the release of radioactive isotopes and chemicals in the processes of exploration and drilling. Both as well as many others are still continuing.

Despite the serial complaints by all oil producing communities and the global campaign against global warming; is the news that the government is granting further extension to gas flaring in Nigeria’s oil rich Niger Delta. Nobody is doing anything at the moment about any palliative for all those whose health, livelihood and well being is being threatened as a result.

The technology of gas capture and storage should at this moment be impressive to the government. I say so because stopping gas flaring through gas capture and/or storage is imperative towards preventing the release into the atmosphere of gas so produced.

Gas from oil exploration is, of course, a key contributor to climate change, and the single biggest industrial source of gas emission is the burning of fossil fuels to exploit oil and produce energy.

The technology of gas capture and storage should be welcomed as a Best Environmental Practical Option. Already in Saskatchawan Canada, a carbon-capture and storage demo-plant has been built. This was a direct follow-up of the unsettling announcement by the United States Department of Energy of what was officially termed a restructuring of its futureGen Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) project.

With the support of the Canadian Federal Government, the Saskatchawan Province undertook a C$4billion CCS demonstration project. CCS is directed at preventing the release into the atmosphere of CO2 produced by the industry.

Globally, fossil fuel account for some 33% of all carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activities. And, among fossil fuels, the biggest producer of such emission is coal. A single large power plant can generate 8million tons of carbon dioxide every year.

The idea of CCS, which if successfully adopted, would allow coal-fired power stations to remain in operation- and even for new ones to be built. This, in turn, would keep the coal mining as well as oil exploration industries in business. The alternative would be the phasing out of coal-fueled electricity generation and, with it, the phasing out of coal-mining and oil exploration worldwide.
A coal-fuelled power station with CCS could have 80% to 85% fewer emissions than one without CCS. With CCS, the carbon dioxide would be captured before it could be released into the air, and the sequested.

Sequestration would involve conveying the carbon dioxide, whether in gaseous, liquid, or supercritical form, by pipeline and/or road tanker and/or ship, through storage sites, to a location where it could be securely stored. The catch is that this sequestration has to endure for a very long time, indeed, - at least centuries, if not millennia.

And it must never be able to leak out in large quantities over a short period, for if it were to do so, it could cause large-scale suffocation. In theory- and, currently, in limited practice – the carbon dioxide can be injected into permeable geological formations, surrounded by impermeable rocks, such as deep saline formations, exhausted oil and gas reservoirs, unminable coal seams, and even abandoned coal mines etc.

The Federal Government and the National Assembly committees on Oil and Gas can explore the CCS option as well as many others and implant same into the prevailing policy in order to protect the environment and safeguard public health, livelihoods and general wellbeing.

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