Why Nigerians should support ban on dirty fuel

Greg Odogwu

There is nothing as painful as watching a criminal who has already been apprehended for his crime, escape justice. Let us say, you saw the thief steal your property, and with the help of neighbours was able to catch him before he escaped. But on handing him over to the law, the thief right in front of you regained his freedom. And walked away free. He simply told the police that he was not guilty. That he was stealing from you legally!

 This is exactly what recently happened when an indicting report was released by a Swiss NGO, Public Eye, accusing some European oil companies and traders of exporting highly polluting fuels to West Africa. These fuels are termed “African quality” diesel and can never be sold in Europe. Swiss commodity traders were accused in the report, which was released last September, of exporting fuels to us with sulphur levels that are sometimes hundreds of times higher than European levels.

This practice has been giving these businessmen immense profit at the detriment of our health. Sulphur in diesel fuels forms sulphur dioxide and sulfate particulate matter during combustion. These pollutants raise particulate levels including ambient fine particulate matter levels. Sulphur oxide can affect the respiratory system and the functions of the lungs, and causes irritation of the eyes.

Inflammation of the respiratory tract causes coughing, mucus secretion, aggravation of asthma and chronic bronchitis; and makes people more prone to infections of the respiratory tract. What is more, when sulphur oxide combines with water, it forms sulphuric acid, and this is the main component of acid rain.

In addition to these air quality and environmental impacts, sulphur in diesel fuel contributes to increased acid levels in the engine and causes serious damage on engine and emission control system. The presence of sulphur in the engine exhaust limits the effectiveness of many exhausts after treatment technologies, resulting in higher emissions of other pollutants such as volatile organic compounds, particles, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen.

According to the Public Eye report, contrary to what most people might think, fuels such as diesel or gasoline tend not to come straight from refineries. Instead, the refineries produce intermediate products, which are then mixed together, occasionally with intermediate products from other sources (such as the chemical industry). This process is called “blending”. To make matters more complex, different types of refineries produce different intermediate products or “blendstocks”.

It also stated: “While African Quality fuels could never be legally sold in Europe, they are produced in Europe nevertheless. The ARA (i.e. Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp) region has become the main hub for the blending and shipping of fuels, especially diesel, to West Africa for a number of reasons, including its extensive refining and blending capacity, its strategic position (which allows it to receive petroleum products and blendstocks from the UK, Russia and the Baltic countries), and its geographic proximity to West Africa.

“The Swiss trading companies own or hire extensive blending facilities in ARA and we can prove for the first time that they dominate the export of African Quality fuels to West Africa. Besides Europe, the blending is also done offshore the West African coast. Most West African ports are too small to receive a large number of tankers or have limited draft, which prevents the larger European tankers from entering.

“Mostly coming from the ARA region, these oil product tankers sail across the Atlantic Ocean and meet in the Gulf of Guinea. Mostly in Togolese waters, they transfer petroleum products from one vessel to another in an operation known as ship-to-ship transfer. The usually smaller tankers then sail off, discharging the products to different countries in the region. These STS operations are also a common way to blend products.”

Now, why did I say at the beginning of this piece that the exporters of polluted fuel to West Africa are like criminals caught in the act yet acquitted and discharged?

When the Public Eye released the report it naturally generated so many emotional outbursts from various quarters; but the indicted Swiss merchants simply said that they were doing legitimate business. Companies identified in the report said they complied with the fuel standards imposed by the governments they shipped to. They also claimed to have been supporting efforts, including those by the African Refiners Association, to improve fuel standards.

Some experts have also conceded that there is nothing illegal about the practice exposed by Public Eye’s report, as the blending of fuels to achieve particular specifications before export is standard industry practice. Interestingly, the report used the term “regulatory arbitrage” in describing the malpractice of the oil companies, which allowed traders and companies to exploit weak standards to export cheap, dirty fuels in a process that maximizes profit at the expense of Africans’ health.

So the point is that as developing countries, we lack strong regulatory structures and enabling laws to serve as safeguards against unscrupulous profiteering and industrial malpractices in this regard.

The Public Eye concluded: “Now is the time for African governments to act. They have the chance to protect the health of their urban population, reduce car maintenance costs, and spend their health budgets on other pressing health issues. By moving to ultra-low sulphur diesel, Africa could prevent 25,000 premature deaths in 2030 and almost 100,000 premature deaths in 2050.”

It must be noted that even before the Public Eye report, West Africa has been on the process of tackling the issue of high sulphur content in fuels, which I have discussed in this column several months ago.

But on December 1, 2016, a high level ministerial meeting on promoting low sulphur fuels in Nigeria and the neighboring countries was convened in Abuja by the Federal Ministry of Environment in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Program, ECOWAS Commission and Climate and Clean Air Coalition and Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles.

At the end of that historic conference, a major recommendation was adopted: That Governments in ECOWAS sub-region should adopt that all imported diesel fuel should meet 50 parts per million maximum in line with ARA-AFRI4 specification by July 1, 2017.

Therefore, today’s article is a call for all Nigerians to support the efforts of the Government in achieving this recommendation, as Nigeria is a leader in the region. Let it be noted that by virtue of being a highly populated country, our cities are at risk of being enveloped in toxic air pollution. In fact, Onitsha has already got the infamous listing by the World Health Organisation as the worst polluted city in the world. Lagos, Ibadan, Kano and Port Harcourt are also on a similar hall of (environmental) shame.

Every citizen should consciously support the implementation of this policy. It is understandable that people who had been benefitting from high sulphur fuel business shall kick. We must be ready.

Even when some indigenous vested interests might try to dissuade us and our government, we should stand our ground. We have been raped for too long. The Western world has very low sulphur content even as low as 15 ppm. It is high time we began to institute this best practice for the sake of our environment and the lives of Nigerian children yet to be born.

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