From Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Abuja

Three weeks after a pipeline explosion in Nembe, Bayelsa State, which led to an oil spill across 45 communities in the state, the Federal Government has announced plans to institute stiffer punishments for companies responsible for oil spills in the country.

The Minister of Environment, Sharon Ikeazor, who described the oil spill in the Niger Delta region as ‘massive’ devastation of the environment gave, spoke on Thursday at the weekly ministerial press briefing organised by the presidential media team at the presidential villa, Abuja.

According to her, the ministry is engaging other relevant government agencies to arrive at the stiffer sanctions applicable.

Ikeazor explained that a bill is being worked out to amend the law establishing the National Oil Spillage Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) to build its capacity and give it ‘the needed teeth to bite.’

She said the operating company of the OML29 in Nembe, Bayelsa state has blamed the recent oil spillage in the country on sabotage by the locals.

She announced that the Santa Barbara oil spill has been brought under control weeks after the incident occurred, with necessary personnel and equipment deployed to begin recovery and remediation efforts.

‘On the Santa Babara ITO oil spills, you remember the ministry of environment issued a statement stating what happened and the action being taken. It’s a collection action between the ministry of petroleum resources, the ministry of environment and the oil company involved. It goes beyond the oil companies giving out palliatives, they must put measures in pace to prevent such accidents from happening. They are also claiming that the spill was due to sabotage by the local communities. We are going to have a targeted approach to illegal bunkering, tampering with oil installation and artisanal mining in the Niger Delta to get alternative livelihood for the young people of the Niger Delta, so that they would desist from this because it is further polluting the environment. The situation has been brought under control. I got a brief from DG of NOSDRA who was out on the field. So, now, work has to start on the proper clean up,’ the minister stated.

‘I got briefings through the director of NOSDRA, and what I saw in term of the pollution either through oil refining or illegal oil refining and otherwise- the devastation of the Niger Delta is massive. As we are cleaning up, what we are cleaning up is minute compared to the devastation going on.

‘So, it is something that government needs to tackle headlong. I hope they would have put the picture on, it was like a Hiroshima site. So, this is something we must tackle headlong. We are beyond talking and having workshop.’

On the issue of penalties, she said: ‘I mentioned earlier the review of NOSDRA bill. You know most of Acts we have passed years ago. You will see that they will give maybe N100 fine, anyone can pay that and go back and re-pollute.

‘We need to put stiffer penalties, build the capacity of NOSDRA which is the regulatory agency in the oil sector to be able to have the teeth to bite. Without enhancing their capacity and reaffirming the legal framework, getting it stronger, they can’t do much. These are areas we are looking in to, it has to stop.

‘Government is working on alternative livelihood for the communities so that we can move them away from illegal activities and further polluting of the environment.’

The minister also touched on the need to put an end to artisanal refineries, which she said had continued to cause pollution in the Niger Delta.

Ikeazor also lamented the high rate of deaths from smoke especially among women in the country, which she noted is the highest in the world.

She said something must be done about the ongoing gas flaring, noting that the country cannot be committed to zero net emission and still be flaring gas.

The minister also said that the country has made a strong statement by the signing of the climate change bill into an act by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Ikeazor added that with this step, the country has shown its commitment towards the Paris agreement on climate change.

‘I will like to state that Nigeria has delivered the loudest statement after COP26, by the President signing the climate change bill into an Act and we have shown a very strong commitment,’ she stated.

‘So, the next step now under the Ministry of Environment is the implementation of all these commitments and strategies as well as the national plans we have in place.’

Ikeazor, who stressing the need for every Nigerian to play a role in ensuring a sustainable environment, said: ‘For an environment that we can be in harmony with, each and every one of us has to be a part of that sustainable environment that we all dream about. We must implement and accelerate the Great Green Wall project which is basically to review and reverse desertification and land degradation in the Northern part of Nigeria.’

The minister assured that the Ogoni clean up would be completed, as she also warned those polluting the environment through artisanal refining to stop.

‘We must accelerate also, the Ogoni cleanup, to make sure that the remediation is completed in time for the good people of Ogoni but at the same time, we must tackle the issue of artisanal refining because as we are cleaning, some are still polluting the environment and we ask that this must stop, for us to have a clean and decent environment,’ she added.

Ikeazor said that the ministry is already adopting various strategies to help address environmental challenges confronting the country.

‘We have come up with strategies for addressing these challenges. These are strategies that we have developed. So in the quest for a green recovery, the Ministry recognises the need to establish the necessary polity, strategy, policy and financial mechanisms that will enable Nigeria have in place all the appropriate environmental governance structure that we need and at the same time reduce carbon emission and pollution, enhance our energy resources efficiently and also prevent the loss of biodiversity in the ecosystem,’ she said.

On the achievements recorded by the ministry, the minister said a lot has been done in the area of flood and erosion control.

‘For us in the Ministry of Environment, our major achievements have been in the area of flood and erosion control, we have a project being run under the Ministry of Environment, but with the World Bank Assisted programme.

‘We have recorded a lot of successes on this and we have been able to install 27 flood early warning systems and we have restored hundreds of erosion sites because the issue of flood has been coming up especially in the Southern part of Nigeria.

‘We also have our Great Green Wall initiatives in the North. These initiatives have been helping our rural people to manage their land sustainably and also improve on land degradation,’ she said.

Ikeazor said the Nigerian government is working on improving the livelihoods of youths of the Niger-Delta region, in order to move them away from restiveness.

‘Government is working on creating alternative livelihood for them so we can move them away from illegal refining and further polluting the environment. For now, we have been able to train about 400 women in agri-business and entrepreneurial skills and also we have got them to form themselves into 20 cooperatives, through which they can be gainfully employed into project sites. We have created about 735 direct jobs and as the cleanup project continues at the complex sites, we will be able to employ a lot more of the youths,’ she explained.

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