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Editorial comment

We often see reports on blood diamonds in the news and by sharing an office with sister publication World Cement, blood minerals have been drawn to my attention. However, when reading ‘The effects of oil companies’ activities on the environment, health and development in Sub-Saharan Africa’ a report from the European Parliament Directorate General for External Policies, my interest turned to illegal refineries and the oil they produce which has been compared to blood diamonds.

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Unlawful refineries initially sparked my interest over a year ago in March 2011 after reports of Nigerian troops destroying 500 illegal refineries in the Mbiama area of the Niger Delta. Illegal refineries are a common sight in the region and their inception and rise has been blamed on a lack of employment opportunities in the region’s legitimate oil industry, corruption, high fuel prices and the absence of alternative employment and fuels. They came to prominence in the 1990s and peaked in 2009 when the Nigerian government called an amnesty, as violence related to the production of oil was increasing rapidly. However, the amnesty didn’t obliterate their existence and ‘blood oil’ is still traded today, especially as Nigeria is now Africa’s biggest oil producing nation. At the time of writing, the most recent discovery of illegal refineries was made by the 4th Brigade Nigerian Army in Igugudu-Aghalokpe, Delta State, along the Ethiope River. Here, 60 working illegal refineries were found along with 10 other partly constructed facilities.

In an unauthorised facility, bunkered oil is boiled to evaporate the diesel. The steam then moves through a water cooled pipe (sometimes just a length of bamboo) where it condenses and drips into an oil barrel. This is an incredibly dangerous process as distilled diesel is kept only meters away from naked flames. The stolen or bunkered oil is often siphoned from pipelines or stolen directly from wellheads or offshore tankers. If an illegal worker is not killed by the high pressure explosion of oil from a breeched pipeline, then they risk their lives once more when distillation of the precious ‘black gold’ is carried out. It is thought that between 20 000 and 100 000 bpd are taken, but the Nigerian government believe that the figure can run as high as 300 000 bpd. This takes approximately US$ 35 million a day out of the oil market. Also, illegal refining is detrimental to the environment as it can cause major and minor oil spills that effect waterways and farms, destroying lawful businesses and industry.

Illegal refineries and ‘blood oil’ obviously need to be targeted and reigned in. It is tragic to read that the only option available for people is to embark on such dangerous projects. Yet, the existence of both is understandable when the people of the Niger Delta appear to have no other option. Technology such as oil fingerprinting, to assist traceability, will obviously help curb the processing and trade of illegal oil, however, it will not help the people involved in this treacherous industry to make an honest living. Government legislation should be enforced more strongly to ensure that the illegal oil cannot be exported and traded on the open market. Also, employment issues have to be addressed; domestic people need to be employed rather than expats so that the money made from the high levels of oil production in Nigeria benefits the local communities and markets. Unfortunately, this will not be a quick process and illegal refineries will no doubt continue to run.