Not All That Glitters: Nigeria's Bitumen Story.

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Travelling through the sleepy and rustic communities of Irele, Agbabu and Illubirin, all in Ondo State, South West, Nigeria, the visitor cannot help but notice the many signboards with their bold declaration: “The Home of Bitumen” . This desire for a close association with bitumen tells the story of the aspirations of the people of Nigeria’s bitumen belt.    

Not All That Glitters: Nigeria's Bitumen Story. - Heinrich Böll Stiftung Abuja Office

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It is the story of hope, anguish and unfulfilled expectations. Over the years, the people of these towns dreamt of the day when bitumen would be exploited, bringing in its way jobs, infrastructure and a boom in economic activities. Those dreams have generally withered, leaving a trail of frustration because the people of these towns continue an almost endless wait for the authorities to move in with the investors. In these towns, bitumen is considered God’s abundant blessing to the people of the area, which should be immediately tapped to create jobs, deliver infrastructure and alleviate poverty in the area.

Bitumen is found in tar sands, which is also a combination of clay, sand and water. A heavy black viscous substance, oil-rich bitumen is extracted from tar sands, which is then refined into oil. The bitumen in tar sands cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state; instead tar sand deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open pit techniques, or the oil is extracted by underground heating with additional upgrading.

At the heart of the matter is the broader debate about Nigeria’s resource riches, and the downsides connected to its inability to translate the wealth into better lives for citizens. This notion is at the heart of narratives headlined by such phrases as the “resource curse.” For the majority of ordinary people, especially in places like Irele, Agbabu and Ilubirin, every natural resource is a blessing to those in whose environment it is found. Consequently, there is the logic that a natural resource must necessarily be tapped to provide economic benefits.

Bitumen As The Next Economic Boom?

One of the key voices of the pro bitumen advocacy is the lawmaker representing the Irele-Agbabu State Constituency in Ondo State House of Assembly, Honourable Afolabi Iwalewa. He thinks that the shaky situation of Nigeria’s oil is a wakeup call for the exploitation of bitumen: “Any moment from now, crude oil will fade off. Look at what is happening now with the talk of oil theft. Every state is crying now, even the Federal Government is crying that it is not getting what it used to get from oil. What is the Federal Government doing, and why can’t we find an alternative? If crude oil is not going to fetch us what we project (in terms of revenue), why can’t we switch over to bitumen?”

The other plank of Honourable Iwalewa’s pro bitumen advocacy is that the non exploitation of the resource is causing people in these communities a lot of trouble because they have to cope with the reality of seepages spoiling precious farmlands where bitumen is found so close to the surface that a simple spade can unearth the glossy black substance.

Within Irele community, there seems to be almost unanimous agreement to exploit the resource in order to create jobs, revive the economy and improve infrastructure and living standards. Whether you ask the youth or the women leader, they all agree with the Honourable Iwalewa. However, developments in other bitumen areas around the globe have created a strong movement against the very disruptive nature of bitumen exploration and the substantial environmental impacts that come with it.

Bitumen exploitation in Canada - currently the biggest producer of tar sands globally - has resulted in serious damage to the local communities and the environment. According to a documentary by Aljazeera titled “To The Last Drop”, a small town in northern Alberta called Fort Chipewyan experienced a spike in cancer cases and dire studies have revealed the true consequences of bitumen exploration. “Papers have come out recently showing that you can’t reclaim the aquifers and the wet lands the cost of any reasonable reclamation are so high that there will be no money made on the oil sands” said Dr. David Schindler, A Professor of Ecology, University of Alberta, as well as an environmental activist.

The report, Marginal Oil: What is driving oil companies dirtier and deeper exposes the environmental and social risks of bitumen mining, and points to the emerging markets in Africa.  “With countries like Nigeria in mind, where impunity, corruption and weak governance tend to undermine the best intentions, the study further warns that the consequences of expansion of the push for unconventional oil such as bitumen from tar sands are likely to be even more devastating.”

Ignoring The Alarm Bells   

In spite of the warnings pointing at the dangers that bitumen production could pose to livelihoods, the environment, including land and water bodies, the people in the bitumen bearing communities have tended to wave these observations aside. They rather choose to express their exasperation that the initial moves towards exploitation failed. They saw a Canadian bitumen company (NISSANDS) set up shop, only to hurriedly close and ship out, and regard this as the biggest let down from the government at the federal level.

The octogenarian traditional ruler of Irele community, the Olofun of Irele dismisses talk of possible environmental destruction if bitumen were to be extracted in the area. He rather talks glowingly of what his domain would look like under the desired bitumen boom,  “If development were to succeed the way the people of this area want it, this town would have looked like Lagos. I say so because bitumen will provide a lot of employment for all the youths in this area, not in Irele alone, but all over the Southern senatorial district and even in the whole of Ondo State. The bitumen deposit here is a very huge one. It is the second largest in the world, according to the survey conducted by some experts,” he enthused.

And on the Canadian experience he explained: “In Canada, they do it in Calgary, and I have been there. They don’t drive away communities, and they replenish the soil. Where they mine the bitumen, they mix the soil with some chemicals, and restore it for the farmers to go back there and farm. And when those people were working here, I talked to them and they told me that even if they have to relocate some communities, they will have to build some fine buildings for them, and that the exploitation won’t affect much of their lands.  It is something that they will dig from the ground, and it won’t affect us adversely.”

Talking to different members of the communities living in the bitumen belt, it seemed that minds had been made up, irrespective of the impacts of bitumen on lives, livelihoods and the environment. In fact, many people got irritated by any attempt to discuss the potential negative effects of bitumen mining. Such was the urge to get development going, and with it create jobs, improve infrastructure and raise incomes.

However, a geologist at the Federal University of Technology, Akure, Ondo State, Professor Peter Odeyemi offered a much more balanced picture of the realities on the ground. Odeyemi, who was a member of the defunct Federal Government’s Bitumen Implementation Committee (BIC) made a poignant observation when he noted that the mere presence of a resource does not necessarily translate into commercially viable deposits.

“The first thing is that how much is there? We don’t know! We need to carry out further work in that area in the first instance. Secondly, exploration can be carried out by an oil company because bitumen is a hydro-carbon. But if an oil company is going to carry out an exploration there, there is a financial interest, and this company will calculate how much it’s going to get. Also how will you exploit without exposing the soil to direct rain fall impact, denudation, erosion and degradation? If you look at the Niger Delta, the people just welcomed oil companies with open hands not knowing that oil companies are only interested in profits. They are not in any way interested in environmental sustainability, in flora, in fauna and even in the development of the people.” He continued: “Our problem is not bitumen; our problem is corruption. What do we do with the money we have been getting from oil? The one we are exploiting, what are we doing with it? The people are getting poorer; there is no electricity, water, healthcare, and education. This is despite the fact that we are making trillions of dollars. So, if we now exploit bitumen and add another trillions, we are just going to multiply the corruption.”