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Governor Bill Richardson Delivers Keynote Address at Niger Delta Environmental Conference in Abuja, Nigeria

Stakeholders Roundtable On Niger Delta Environmental Protection And Regeneration
Keynote Address By Governor Bill Richardson
Abuja, Nigeria

Good morning.  I am honored to be here and I thank you, Madam Minister, and the organizers and sponsors of this Roundtable, for inviting me to participate.

You might be wondering why an American, even a former Energy Secretary and UN Ambassador, is Chairing this important gathering.

The answer is straightforward and simple. I see a bright future for Nigeria. I have come here many times before on various missions. In fact, I probably devote more of my time and energy to Nigeria than any other country on the African continent.  I truly feel I have a stake in Nigeria and its future.

This is a country with abundant natural resources, a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, and a government that is actively seeking solutions to the challenges the country faces.

Nigeria has a bright future, but some of the challenges it faces today are very serious. We are here today to address one such challenge – The Niger Delta. I have visited the Delta several times, so I am sensitive to the deep-seated challenges in the region and want to participate in finding solutions. It is imperative that we succeed. Nigeria’s future economic prosperity and the health of its citizens depend on it.

Today’s event is far from the first attempt to address challenges in the Niger Delta, and it won’t be the last. But together we can chart a course with real and measurable benchmarks for improving the Delta’s environment, not just for the people living and working there today, but for future generations.

The Niger Delta is the heart of Nigeria’s oil industry. It contributes significantly to world energy markets, and any disturbances in the Delta ripple out through global oil markets.  Nigeria is one of the top ten oil producers in the world. All of that oil comes from the Niger Delta and its offshore areas.  What happens there has a significant impact on my country, the United States, and on all of the world’s oil-consuming countries, large and small.

The Niger Delta is also at the core of Nigeria’s national economic security and well-being. The region supports the general economic welfare of Nigeria’s population of more than 150 million people.  Oil accounts for about 20 percent of Nigeria’s GDP and more than 90 percent of its export earnings.  Almost 85 percent of the Federal Government’s national budget comes from oil revenues. Monthly allocations to the 36 States are the states’ biggest sources of revenue. This revenue pays for infrastructure, education, health care, salaries of civil servants, public safety and security, national defense, and the full range of functions that government performs.

No one in this room is naïve about the enormity of the challenges we are here to discuss. While the Niger Delta is an economic powerhouse, it is also home to environmental pollution that must be addressed.

If those issues are not resolved, the repercussions could have profound and even devastating consequences for Nigeria’s future and the future of the Nigerian people. In the face of these critical issues, I want to see Nigeria succeed, realize its national potential, assume its leadership role in Africa, and take its rightful place in the world.  That is why I am here.

The challenges in the Niger Delta are not new. They have been building, brewing, and growing worse for more than five decades.  The region has suffered enormous neglect over this period and I think we all know that we have reached a stage where continued indifference and inaction are no longer tenable.

The Jonathan Administration, and the previous Administration of the late President Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, deserve much credit for taking a serious approach to the Niger Delta and seeking durable solutions to its problems.

The focus of our Roundtable is on the environment and how to make it safe for human health and well-being.  We all know that environmental remediation cannot wait, that we need to begin the task of cleaning up the Niger Delta with a great sense of urgency.

Environmental degradation cannot be viewed in isolation.  It is a root cause of poverty in the Niger Delta and has spawned the hardships and misery that people in the Delta face:

  • Gas flaring and oil pollution have damaged the air, soil, and water and undermined the fragile ecosystems in the Niger Delta;
  • Groundwater has been polluted and made  unsafe for human consumption;
  • Farmers have lost their ability to produce food for their families because their soils have been poisoned;
  • Fishermen can no longer make a living from the once abundant rivers and streams;
  • Debilitating health issues from oil-related pollution abound;
  • And societal frustrations have grown into militancy, and militancy into violent political action, kidnappings, abductions, and damage to essential oil-producing infrastructure

The result is that the Niger Delta, one of Nigeria’s most valuable pieces of real estate, has become a “no-go” area for many in the outside world, and many Nigerians live in fear.  This is unacceptable.

The Federal Government should be commended for its well-meaning amnesty program.  But let’s not fool ourselves, the amnesty program is only a beginning. Militancy and violence could resurface again in the face of the slightest perceived government inaction and societal indifference.

But the Government cannot solve the problems of the Niger Delta alone.  These are not just local issues. They are national problems and all stakeholders, both in and outside the Niger Delta, must play a role.

The recent UNEP Report on Ogoniland has laid out a plan, based on extensive scientific evidence and findings, of what must be done to clean up the Niger Delta.  Implementing that roadmap will be expensive, it will be painstaking, and it will require three specific types of effort:

  • First, it will require tremendous political will by the government, which initially failed to monitor the area and demand remediation. Government has a clear regulatory responsibility;
  • Second, it will require remediation by the company responsible for most of the spillage, and an ongoing commitment to infrastructure modernization and providing technical expertise to quickly respond to new spills;
  • And third, it will require changes at the grassroots level from community members whose bunkering activities and theft from oil pipelines made environmental conditions worse.

No one is blameless in the dire situation we face and everyone must play a role in making it right.   Done right, environmental restoration efforts will provide jobs to Nigerians while also enhancing stability and rural economies in the Niger Delta.

This Roundtable is designed to define the way forward to clean up historic oil spills in the Niger Delta.  While I certainly do not wish to preempt the conclusions that will flow from the Roundtable discussions, I offer the following suggestions to start our discussion:

  1. The President should consider establishing a high-level, inter-agency “Action Committee” to plan and oversee the clean-up of legacy oil spills in the Niger Delta and to develop an effective plan to deal with oil spills in the future.  Nigeria must have a robust system for preventing leaks, reporting oil spills, responding to oil spills, cleaning up areas affected by spills, and in some cases compensating for damages. This Committee should be co-Chaired by the Minister of Petroleum and the Minister of Environment. The Minister of Finance should also serve on the Committee since its success is critical to the country’s financial future. Other Ministerial and State government representation should be decided by the President.

The Committee should also include the Chairmen of the three relevant Senate Committees – Niger Delta, Environment and Ecology, and upstream Petroleum Upstream – and their counterparts in the House of Representatives.  The Committee should be supported by a highly effective and qualified technical staff.

I want to be clear that a committee is not an excuse to study the problems without results. It must be given a deadline for developing a plan. The Committee’s plan, in turn, must have a realistic but aggressive timetable for implementation.

  1. An Advisory Council should be established to allow community leaders, NGO representatives, business leaders, ex-militants, and other Niger Delta Stakeholders to channel proposals and ideas to the Super Committee.  The Super Committee should meet with these civil society leaders on a scheduled and regular basis as well as with oil company representatives. Additional public meetings should be held to ensure that all voices are heard.
  2.   The Government should establish a “Superfund” to finance clean up of legacy oil spills.  Seed capital for the Fund should be provided by the IOCs operating in Nigeria and by the Nigerian government.  A special contribution will be required from those IOCs that have historically operated in Niger Delta and who are known to be responsible for major spills.

Future and ongoing operating revenue also could be tapped through a special levy on oil production.  Some revenue may be generated from international contributions, although the Fund should not count on significant international largesse.  International development partners, however, may be willing to provide technical assistance to support oil spill clean-ups and environmental remediation.

  1. Government should encourage and support the Senate initiative to review existing laws and regulations related to environmental degradation in the Niger Delta caused by oil activities and spills.  These laws should be updated to better protect the environment and hold oil companies accountable for oil spill clean-ups.  Heavy fines should be imposed for future spills and companies should be required to clean-up historic spills for which they are found to be responsible.
  2. The Government should take a hard look at its bureaucratic structure and make changes where necessary to ensure strong mandates, clear lines of responsibility, and no duplication of effort.
  3. Government should establish a single, simple free phone number to which citizens could report spills easily – either by a phone call or text message. The line must be staffed 24/7so that action can be taken immediately by government and oil companies to respond to spills.  In addition, available data on existing spills should be made publicly available in the form of a map available online.
  4. Oil and gas companies operating in the Niger Delta must take steps to decommission older equipment. Part of this effort could be voluntary, but Government should consider stronger maintenance and pipeline replacement requirements. Clearing away rusting well-heads and corroding pipelines shows that the industry is serious about being a good neighbor. Elsewhere in the world, decommissioning is mandatory and the scrap metal brings profits.
  5. All Stakeholders must push for jobs and employment.   Underlying socio-economic conditions in the Niger Delta have not radically changed, despite the amnesty, training opportunities for former militants, the new focus on environmental remediation, and evidence of greater political will from Abuja and State governments.
  6. Government should create a practical development plan for the Niger Delta supported and backed by the private sector and civil society as well as endorsed by the militants. This will require significant revision of government policy and structures that have thus far proven ineffective.  First, Government would do well to designate the Niger Delta as an “emergency economic development zone”.  The objectives of this zone would be to stimulate environmental clean-up, meaningful employment, infrastructure development, housing, education, and local business creation.

As a part of this plan, Government should consider setting up a roads, school, and housing construction program.  This program could hire thousands of ex-militants and community Stakeholders for many years, and could be applied across the country – not just in the Delta.  An affordable homes project where young people employed on these projects could get a mortgage and own one of the homes that they have helped to build should be considered.

  1. Finally, with oil company and international partner support, Government should establish an “Academy for Oil Spill Clean-Up” to train former militants and community members on techniques for oil spill clean-up. Upon graduation, they would be hired by oil companies and Government to carry out clean-up projects in areas tainted by pollution. This would be “good business” for the oil companies, help clean up the environment and generate employment.

None of what I have outlined above can be completely effective without government, companies, NGOs, media, and citizens playing their parts.

The Government of Nigeria, including State Governments, should take the lead role to clean-up the legacy spills in the Niger Delta and put in place a structure to deal effectively and decisively with future spills.  Government must also carefully and genuinely plot an economic development strategy in the Delta, one that will provide jobs, a living wage, and life with dignity.  But Government cannot do this alone.

Oil companies have a historic and moral responsibility to clean up spills in the Niger Delta as a manifestation of their corporate responsibility and also to further their commercial interests in the future.  Oil companies are empowered if they join forces with local communities to make lives better.

NGOs must serve as credible watch-dogs over the process of oil spill clean-ups, offer ideas and advice, and educate the rest of us on the enormity of the challenges and pitfalls we face.  NGOs must be balanced, impartial, and apolitical.  They must carry out their functions in a non-combative, collaborative way with Government, the IOCs and community members, including former and existing militants.

The role of the media is also critical.  The media needs to educate the rest of Nigeria on the importance and contributions of the Niger Delta.  Citizens in other parts of Nigeria must know about the hardships and deprivations that the operating oil environment has brought to the people of the Niger Delta.  All Nigerians must accept that the problems of the Delta are their problems, and not just local ones.

Finally, community members are the key to this entire process.  Their attitudes, cooperation, actions, and understanding will determine whether the oil spill clean-up program will succeed or fail.

Sabotage of oil pipelines, bunkering, and abduction of oil company personnel are not in the long-term interests of local communities and exacerbate the problems of pollution, poverty, environmental degradation, and isolation.

During the period of militant unrest and confrontation, Nigeria lost tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue, the national economy was disrupted, and infrastructure projects were stopped or slowed. Much of the revenue that was forfeited during these so-called “lost years” could have been used to benefit the Niger Delta.

Local communities must become full participants in decision-making regarding legacy oil spill clean-ups.  They must be involved in planning, prioritizing and executing clean-up projects. If communities benefit through training, employment and improvement of their living conditions, they will claim ownership of the clean-up programs and the programs will succeed.  This is the core requirement of the Niger Delta oil spill clean-up initiative.

Before I close, allow me to make one last suggestion.  I am told that this Roundtable may become an annual event. That would be a pragmatic idea, and I encourage annual meetings where progress can be reported and course corrections can be made.

Honorable Ministers, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am greatly honored to participate in this Roundtable today.  I look forward to learning from you and contributing to the proceedings as your Chairman.

Again, I want to thank the host, sponsors and organizers of this very timely gathering.  I am delighted to be here.

Thank you for your kind consideration and attention.