Every year, millions of dollars are literally going up in smoke in Nigeria, Africa's top crude oil-exporting nation, as companies burn off unwanted natural gas released during oil production.
This flaring and venting produces more greenhouse-gas emissions than any other single source in Africa south of the Sahara, and many who live in Nigeria's oil-producing communities complain of chronic health and environmental problems associated with the gas flares.
Black Clouds over Ebocha
Much of the region where oil is pumped is a maze of winding mangrove creeks and waterways. Leafy, green and humid, Ebocha-Egbema is an unremarkable collection of small villages with tin-roof houses and shops, located in the heart of the Rivers State in Nigeria's turbulent oil-producing Niger Delta.
Huge flames billow in the air over Ebocha, and above them, black clouds leap into the sky. The giant gas flares operated by Agip-Nigeria belch out noxious fumes that loom over homes, farms and shops. There's a strange smell and an audible hiss in the air.
Residents of the Niger Delta region, where Ebocha is located, say gas flaring is ruining lives and livelihoods. Chief Eze Kingsley Okene, a local traditional leader and retired chemist, says Nigeria isn't doing enough to curb the practice.
"Yes, we are living with death, because of [the] oil company," Chief Okene says.
While many villagers may not be familiar with the concept of climate change, they complain that the air around them is hotter and foul-smelling because of the gas flares. Chief Okene's wife, Roseline organizes protests against gas flaring, which she says produce poisons that kill crops and make villagers sick.
"If you put water in a basin, you see that the water will change to charcoal — black and slippery," Roseline says. "You cannot wash it out without soap. ... So if [a] human being drinks such water, it will affect a human being."
In the areas close to the gas flares, medical staff report treating patients with all sorts of illnesses that they believe are related to the flames: bronchial, chest, rheumatic and eye problems, among others. Some are referred to Ebocha-Egbema's General Hospital, which is being completely refurbished.
The hospital's senior nursing officer, Anthonia Chioma Ike, is from another part of Nigeria, but after eight years of living and working in the vicinity of the gas flares, she's furious about what's going on.
"I don't feel fine. I feel afraid. I feel that something might happen one day that will cause a disaster in the community ... Like fire. Like people around that area always come here complaining that they are having internal heat. ... And they say they don't sleep because of the noise of that place," Chioma says. "From here, you'll be hearing the noise ... As if something is falling from up, from height. They say every time it seems the house and everything will explode."
Putting Out Flares
On the other side of the world, Chris Elvidge, a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, monitors a map of satellite images of gas flares so huge they can be spotted from space. Elvidge and his colleagues in Boulder, Colo., track gas flaring all over the globe. He says that after Russia, Nigeria has the most flares.
"The gas flares in Nigeria are in the Niger Delta and offshore. Fifty to 100 of these gas flares produce very large halos of light, balls of light, and it's because the flares have no shielding around them," Elvidge explains.
Worldwide, oil companies have been burning the gas associated with crude oil production for years. In 2002, the World Bank launched a joint private/public global partnership to find ways to cut gas flaring while ensuring other benefits, such as energy savings and reduced air pollution.
Gas flares emit about 390 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, and experts say eliminating global flaring alone would curb more CO2 emissions than all the projects currently registered under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism.
In response to international and local pressure, Nigeria pledged in 1984 to eliminate gas flares and set 2008 as the target date. While gas flaring is unlikely to end next year, the government says it's serious about the effort, and Chris Elvidge confirms that the efforts to reduce gas flaring are producing results.
"Nigeria has brought their gas flaring down by about 10 billion cubic meters a year from the mid-1990s, so Nigeria is actually one of the few countries of the world where gas flaring has been reduced. But there's still a lot of it."
Oil is a mainstay of Nigeria's economy, and the government acknowledges that the oil industry still flares 24 billion cubic meters of gas a year, enough to power a good portion of Africa for a whole year.
Despite its oil wealth, Nigeria itself suffers chronic energy shortages. The gas is often burned right next door to homes that don't have electricity, and while there's a local market for the natural gas vented during oil production, it's less profitable than crude oil. Critics warn that not enough is being done to put out flares or save gas that could be harvested and used within the country.
Chief Okene in Ebocha-Egbema says he just wants to see change. Tapping on the tin roof over his home, badly rusted and eroded by acid rain, he points to the stump of what was a precious coconut tree.
"This died about four years ago. But the point I'm making is that this coconut is supposed to remain for at least 50 years before dying, but the burning gas has made it to die under 10 years."