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Ondo Community Cries For Help As Ororo-1 Oilfield Inferno Rages

Residents of Awoye, a community in the South West coastal region of Nigeria, which is home to the Ororo-1 oilfield in Ondo State, are crying…

Residents of Awoye, a community in the South West coastal region of Nigeria, which is home to the Ororo-1 oilfield in Ondo State, are crying for help from the authorities as the fire ignited by a spill from the oilfield has degraded the environment, threatening their livelihoods.

Once a scenic beauty of golden sunsets, mirrored by clear waters, Awoye is now the site of a fiery blaze that has been burning for the past three years.  

As the oil spill continues to fuel the fire, films of oil and toxic chemicals form a molotov cocktail, killing fishes and blocking the natural aeration for marine life. 

In May 2020, the fire in Ororo-1 oilfield erupted as a result of high-pressure from its core. When the fire started, the reservoir pressure was at 8,000 pound-force per square inch (psi). Usually, oil wells with a temperature above 150 degrees Celsius and 10,000 pound-force per square inch (psi) are high temperature, high-pressure wells. These sites are at risk of reacting with naturally occurring compounds in the earth, which may lead to a volatile thermal reaction. 

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Before its present volatile state, Awoye was renowned for its cocoa production. Fishmongers thronged from far and wide to the town to buy the catch of the day. Now, the smoky aroma of grilled fish has been replaced by the toxic fumes from combusting chemicals.

Nestled between Ogun and Delta states, the southernmost border of Ondo State is the Atlantic Ocean. Ileaja’s ocean soaked shores, once pristine and salty hark back to simpler times, the era of the ancient Akure Kingdom.  

Today, residents of Ileaja only know of the Ororo-1 oilfield bringing nothing but despair. Once seen as a symbol of hope and economic promise, it is now a beacon of environmental degradation. From the shores, residents can see the fiery blaze, and they allege that the government has neglected them.

It is now a symbol of ecocide and outright neglect of one of the largest oil producers in Nigeria. The number of barrels of crude oil lost to the inferno is best left to a wild imagination. 

The journey  

On a boat journey from Sapele in Delta State, this reporter encountered six military checkpoints on the water. After a three-hour journey, he arrived at Awoye on a bright and sunny day. A cool and humid breeze teases a lazy afternoon. Awoye’s fishing community is nestled along the southern edges of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Within another hour-thirty minutes on sometimes turbulent waters, the reporter found the Ororo Oil Field, Five Navy gunships guard OML95, also known as Ororo-1 Oil Field. The crew disguised in tattered fishermen’s clothes. That is the only way to avoid a security inquisition. 

Plight of Awoye people

For the townsfolk of Awoye, the ebb and flow of life are just like the tides. Inquisitive journalists, environmental activists and travelers come and go. Many are outraged at the alleged injustice, yet they have brought no fire brigade to quench the unending fire at the Ororo-1 Oil Field.

Temi Ajimisogbe, a 48-year-old fisherman, has lived all his life at Awoye. For him, the ocean is more than a source of livelihood. His earliest memories are of sandy shores, catching stray crabs and gleeful racing by the edge of the ocean. Since the fire started, the grim reality of the oil spill has dampened his spirit. The fish are fewer and far between catches. The once vibrant waters are now the poster for ecological injustice.

“We can no longer fish around the area where the fire is burning. If we fish from now until tomorrow, we won’t catch a single fish. We have no idea where the fire is coming from deep in the water. They have refused to put out the fire, we don’t know what is happening,” Temi said.

Madam Awoye, another native of Ileaja, has lived all her life in the community. She remembered when the oil company first came with big promises.

“When they came to Awoye, they assessed the area. They called themselves Shell company. They said they found oil in the deep waters, our elders were alive at that time. They refused to allow them explore the area. They pleaded and said they would fix our community and when they were done exploring oil, they would make sure there is no environmental mess. But after the oil exploration, they have left us,” she said.

A 90-year-old Olayinka Ayene, who has lived all her life at Awoye is saddened at the thought of celebrating another birthday while her home town suffers. 

“Let the government help us, we are dying here. Before oil exploration life was better, but now, we are left with nothing, we are dying,” she said.

Unveiling the mystery

Chief Happiness Abiye, the community leader, knows exactly what happened in May 2020. He said, “There was a blowout and a fire boat was deployed. It was not efficient to carry out the maintenance and the boat capsized. A bigger boat was brought in to rescue the people carrying out the maintenance. They left the Ororo well still burning. After that, we contacted Chevron and they said they were not responsible for the location, and that Shell company was the owner,” he said.

Reports had it that the oil well was originally prospected by Gulf, now Chevron, in 1986. After the company discovered the dangerous pressure levels, it sealed and abandoned the site. Next, Guarantee Petroleum, in partnership with Owena Oil and Gas, tried their luck at the oil well after winning a licence in 2003.

Guarantee Petroleum claimed to have done an environmental impact assessment beforehand. However, the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) revoked their licence in April 2020 because they failed to develop the oil field and bring it to full production by April 2019.  

By October that same year, Guarantee Petroleum, perhaps under the impression that a re-entry would nullify the revocation, rushed to the site for re-entry. The DPR claimed that the hydraulic work-over rig Grace-1 HWU deployed by Guarantee Petroleum was inadequate for the intended re-entry and that the company went ahead without due approval from the DPR. 

Only the workers on site and forensic experts may know for sure what led to the sudden eruption of hydrocarbon fluids at depths of 8,500 feet to the surface forcing a blowout and the unending fire. 

The impact of the environmental disaster at Awoye transcends its confines to the greater Niger Delta area. Niger Delta, a vast region home to more than 30million people, has been both the lifeblood and victim of oil exploration in Nigeria for decades. 

Chief Happiness Abiye believes the government should be accountable for what is happening at Awoye. “We don’t have good water, no food. Our homes are being flooded by the sea. The government should find every means to put out the fire,” he said. 

Govt accused of neglecting oil spillage

Industry insiders said decades of exploration had turned this once-thriving region into one of the most polluted places on earth. According to the king of Epetiama and chairman of the Bayelsa State Traditional Rulers Council, Bubaraye Dakolo, the government has neglected oil spillage for far too long. 

“It is a big shame, as far as I am concerned, that for three years, the Nigerian state has failed to give hope to the people of Ondo, the people of Delta State and the people of Niger Delta for such an occurrence to last for this long,” the king said.

The Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency had, in two years, recorded over 800 oil spills. 

“That is not just statistics, it is a grim reality painted in barrels of spilt oil and hectares of ruined land.

“The burning and spilling have been ignored, simply because the Nigerian government and the oil companies don’t care about Nigerians. All they ever care about are the resources being extracted from the area. It is about the money from petroleum resources, never about the life of the people. This is why life expectancy in the Niger Delta is at an abysmal 41 years, one of the lowest anywhere in the world. So, ignoring the incident is not accidental, it is just a very clear illustration of the lack of care of the system for the people and for the ecosystem.

“The Ororo-1 well inferno is a symbol of a burnt national conscience. It represents a huge discounting of the lives of the people, their culture and ecosystem. We are seeing a blatant burning of fossil gas and spilling of crude oil in disregard of the health of the planet at a time when urgent climate action is needed.

“There is no word to describe this horrid debacle. Ororo-1 well is a crime scene that needs international attention and action since the Nigerian government is asleep on it,” Nnimmo Bassey, the executive director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) said.

Bassey is not alone in his outrage. Environmental advocates, sounding the alarm, emphasize that this is beyond a mere fire.

“It is a chronicle etched in disrupted lives and unraveling ecosystems, an urgent narrative that clamours to be acknowledged. When the fire erupted in 2020, Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency reached out to Halliburton, engaging their assistance in extinguishing the inferno,” Ken Henshaw, the executive director, WeThePeople said.

Niger Delta is one of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world where a barrel of crude oil spill in one spot can cause ecological devastation across the area. Where there is consistent burning of hydrocarbon like the one happening in the Ororo field, it means that the people, who are predominantly fisher-folks and farmers, can no longer carry out their trade. 

“They can no longer fish because the fish are long gone and the place is totally polluted. We have a research that demonstrates very clearly that the more our dependence on crude oil revenues increased, so did our dependence and investment in other areas of the economy decline simultaneously. So we actually lost more thriving cleaner sources of revenue on account of our dependence on crude oil,” Emem Okon, the executive director, Kebekatche Women Development Centre, said  

“With this incident, a lot of hydrocarbon is released into the atmosphere and the plant that would have helped to contain that carbon is going to be destroyed. It is actually going to be destroyed by the impact of the spill and the burning, so that makes the ecosystem, the environment, the people, more vulnerable than what they were previously. The voices of those people need to be heard,” Ms Okon said.

The outlook for oil exploration in Nigeria

In 2022, the Nigeria Energy Transition Plan was launched, with the aim of guiding Nigeria’s ambitious journey towards achieving net-zero emissions by 2060, focusing on reducing emissions across pivotal sectors of power, oil and gas, transport, and industry.

Akinbode Oluwakemi, the executive director, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), believes that more can be done to create awareness.  

“We need to bring their consciousness because we are gradually coming to the end of fossils,” he said, adding that technologies around the world are moving and it will almost get to a point that nobody would want to buy oil.

“There are lots of potential, resources, renewable resources and alternative economies that this country can develop. Almost everywhere in Nigeria is arable farmlands and we are importing food. Everywhere you have sunlight and we are having energy crisis. What happens to renewable energy? We need a political shift from dependence on fossil,” he said. 

For Nigeria, where the economic pulse is synchronised with the rhythms of the oil and gas industry, the shift from fossil fuels is not merely a discussion; it is a battle cry for a country standing at the crossroads of progress and preservation.

While the debate storms on, the narrative is unfolding with the voices of Awoye, Niger Delta and every community swayed by the ebb and flow, playing pivotal roles in this symphony of change.

Shell declines comment, Chevron denies operating Ororo-1 oilfield

In an email addressed to Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited seeking clarification regarding the ownership of the Ororo-1 Field OML95, Shell declined to comment on spillage issues, deferring inquiries to industry regulators.

When approached to react to the allegation of possessing the oil well, Chevron Nigeria Limited said, “Ororo Field is not operated by Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL) or any of its affiliates. The field was designated a marginal field by the Department of Petroleum Resources (now Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission) and was farmed out to third parties in 2004.”

Court order preventing us from acting – Petroleum Regulatory Commission

When asked about the current status of OML95 and the prolonged abandonment of the field amid spillage, the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC), said the field was awarded to Guarantee Petroleum Company Limited (Guarantee) and Owena Oil and Gas Limited (Owena) with participating interests of 55 per cent and 45 per cent respectively during the 2003/2004 Marginal Field Bid Round. 

The NUPRC stated that Guarantee Petroleum Company Limited served as the operator.

“Following a comprehensive review by the defunct Department of Petroleum Resources on the performance of the marginal fields and in alignment with recommendations to the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, the award was revoked due to the field’s failure to archive full production, thereby not meeting the government’s programme objectives.

“As a result of the above, Owena Oil and Gas Limited instituted suit number FHC/L/CS/587/20 against the Minister of Petroleum Resources and the Department of Petroleum Resources, challenging the revocation of the Ororo Marginal Field (OML 95) as being unlawful, specifically urging the court to restrain them from including the Ororo Marginal Field in the next bid,” the commission stated.

The commission noted that the court granted an injunction directing the defunct DPR and the then minister to maintain status quo on the Ororo Marginal Field (OML 95) pending the hearing and determination of the suit.

“As a result of that court order, the commission was hampered from doing all it could have done to stop the degradation of the environment,” it explained.

Residents told Daily Trust on Sunday that there was the need to quench the burning fire at Awoye, adding that only unanimous voices and calls for urgent action could protect them from further harm.

 

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