There is an irony that has not escaped the residents of the Niger Delta, such as Prince Augustine Chim, who lives in one of many communities with no power – his only light at night comes from a nearby gas flare. His home in the village of Rumuekpe, near Port Harcourt, is within walking distance of the plants of four major oil companies and a flare that has been burning for decades. "You can see it more clearly at night," he says.
Beyond the blame game over responsibility for the ongoing disaster of gas flaring in the delta region, there is an opportunity when solving this problem to ease some of the tensions that have contributed to unrest in the first place.
Along with all their other deprivations, people in the Niger Delta suffer acute energy poverty. Nationally, only 30 per cent of Nigerians have access to anything like a reliable electricity source, but in the oil-rich creeks this proportion is far lower.
And while the region's energy riches have the capacity to move world oil prices by $20 per barrel, sitting in the dark breeds understandable resentment. Making use of the gas being burned could produce 8,000 megawatts of power – three times Nigeria's current output.
Unfortunately, efforts to achieve this have focused on mega-projects such as a regional power grid for West Africa, or pipe dreams like the trans-Sahara pipeline aiming to transport natural gas to Europe via Algeria.
Even the more practical solution of liquid natural gas plants that allowed Nigeria to begin exporting the gas has repeated past mistakes. The costs of these grand schemes are immense and the planned gas collection and distribution network has been largely stuck since 2006.
There are mounting calls for a smaller-scale, local approach that would see individual flares equipped to power individual generators. A single small- to medium-sized flare could power up to 5,000 homes, shops, schools and clinics as well as pumps and filters for drinking water.
The projected costs for these units should be balanced against the $88m that the Nigerian government spent on the first phase of last year's amnesty for militant groups in the Niger Delta – basically an exercise in buying off men with guns.
There is no panacea for the complex of ills that underlies the unrest in the Niger Delta. But a project that tied the benefits of oil production to benefits for the communities that host the oil companies – and removed one of the main sources of pollution in the process – would be a start.Reuse content