Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The DPR conference on HSE challenges

THE 13th biennial International Conference on Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) in the oil and gas sector organized by the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) was held from November 3-5, 2008 at the Nicon Luxury Hotel Abuja. The gathering, which attracted the major players in the oil and gas sector, had the theme, "Promoting HSE Best Practices in a Challenging Environment". It is pertinent to ask why Nigeria is a challenging environment for the application of HSE best practices? Why is it easy, so to say, to apply HSE requirements in other environments and not in Nigeria? What is the way forward?

The three-day event provided opportunity for oil industry professionals, engineers, policy makers, and academics to examine the issue of HSE practices in Nigeria. Besides, indigenous people whose livelihood system and environment have been devastated by the oil industry were there to present their case on the nagging issue of giving them a new lease of life by restoring their environment and providing basic social amenities. The militancy in the Niger Delta featured prominently as a critical factor affecting the oil industry at the moment. How to assuage these aggrieved groups to cooperate with the federal government and the oil companies in their quest to address the needs of the area is a major concern. Nothing can be done in a state of insecurity of life and property.

On this note, the issue of security of oil and gas operations set the ball rolling. Security was recognized as fundamental for progress to be made in terms of infrastructural development. It was appreciated that the rise of militancy has put the oil industry in jeopardy. For instance, attacks on oil facilities by militants have created more troubles for the industry. The result is that the number of oil spills has increased in recent times. It is no longer easy to say who is responsible for what and that compounds the pollution problem in the region.

The neglect of the oil region has been there for over 50 years since oil was first struck at Oloibiri. While the demand for justice and equity may be justified, there is need for the people to cooperate with the government in its resolve to tackle the problems in the area. The impression should not be created that the area has not received any patronage from government. While the area is asking for more control of the oil resources, experience shows that funds given through individuals and groups hardly get to the people. Developing the oil region therefore may not be possible through a piecemeal approach. As a way forward, the federal government should move in the same way it handled Abuja FCT and give the region a facelift. I have not heard that the militants blew up a bridge or any road in the area. Their target has been on oil infrastructure facilities probably because that is what is visible.

Certainly, like in other parts of the country, there is governance failure in the oil region. The state governments are in a position to effect meaningful and visible infrastrucral change but they have failed to do this and the aggression is directed on the federal government, which is seen as the main culprit.

Apart from the extraneous issue of militancy that in a way hampers HSE application, there is also the issue of management commitment. The application of HSE flourishes in environments where management of companies and organizations are committed to the issue. The failure of HSE practice in Nigeria is not due to lack of enabling laws. It was clear from the conference that the oil industry has a whole gamut of 20 different laws that require operating companies in one way or the other to adhere to best practices in the oil industry. The Petroleum Act of 1969 No. 51 is one of them and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Act of 1977 is another. The effectiveness of the laws depends on compliance to their stipulations.

HSE has to be cultural for it to work. This is how the issue is taken in environments where it works. Except the management of companies sees the application of HSE best practices as a necessity, they will hardly apply it in their operations. And by extension, except government and its enforcement agencies take a firm stand on the issue, the companies in the field will not comply. The question to ask at this stage is to what extent are the operating companies in Nigeria required to apply HSE in their activities? How many companies have been penalized for failure to adhere to HSE requirements? Why are the defaulting companies not sanctioned or dragged to court for failure to apply HSE? As long as company managements are not penalized whenever they default on this matter, implementing HSE best practices would remain a Herculean task.

For example, one area where the issue of health is largely ignored is in hyperbaric medical practice. Deep offshore oil prospecting normally requires the services of divers for under water activities. The divers carry out a host of underwater functions in challenging environments. Experience shows that the health condition of the divers is hardly considered both before and after their services because of lack of proper facilities. Whereas, oil exploration has been going on in Nigeria for decades, this area of medical practice that takes care of divers and associated offshore ailments remains undeveloped.

Medical practitioners in this area are lacking. There is at present only one Dr. Emmanuel Ekugo in the whole country that practices hyperbaric medicine. This is scandalous. The extent to which this lone practitioner based in Port Harcourt is able to handle all the diverse offshore ailments of divers and oil workers is not known. How is this lone physician able to cope with cases from the entire oil region? One thing is certain, there can be no good health or safety for oil industry workers who have ailments that only one physician could handle in the whole country. The implication of this is that many people die or are incapacitated due to inadequate medical services.

This brings the issue of emergency into focus. Medical emergency response is critical in the oil industry. This is because oil workers are exposed to different kinds of accidents in the field. But we live in an environment that lacks basic infrastructural facilities. Our roads are in bad shape. In places like Lagos and Port Harcourt, severe traffic hold-up hinder free movement of emergency vehicles. Ambulance services conveying accident victims are held up in traffic and the victims suffer untold pain and anguish. Emergency airlift is undeveloped. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) could hardly respond to emergency. Their helicopters are not versatile to attend to critical emergencies any time and anywhere.

In cases where service companies or oil companies themselves have helicopters for emergency; there ought to be helipads and a smooth connection with the road network. Besides, the abuse of siren on our roads has compounded medical emergency services. Motorists hardly give way to siren blaring vehicles because of blatant abuse by unauthorized persons. These constraints make the application of HSE practices difficult in the Nigerian environment.

It is ironic that the situation in the Nigerian oil industry is different from what obtains in other countries. Worldwide, the same multinational oil companies operate the oil industry. These companies apparently adhere to the stipulated rules and regulations in other climes but fail to do the same in Nigeria. While compromise and endemic corruption in the country may account for the ugly state of affairs, the low percentage of Nigerians in critical management positions is a major factor.

In an attempt to redress this gross imbalance, the federal government issued the Nigeria Content Directive (NCD) in 2005 to empower local communities in the oil industry. To date the directive requires oil companies to have 24 per cent of their staff made up of the locals. NCD is critical in HSE implementation. It is erroneous for anyone to believe that foreigners with vested interest in their turnover would be the ones to clean our backyard. The owner of the yard better clears the refuse dump behind his backyard.

The DPR conference has come at a time when the world is lamenting environmental degradation around the globe and its impact on climate change. Nigeria's oil industry is a culprit especially with regards to gas flaring. As a matter of fact, the oil companies and government know what to do to stop gas flaring but they don't want to do it. Postponing the deadline for gas flaring is not in the national interest. Government should honour its commitments with its joint venture partners and deal with this problem once and for all. The DPR should not stop to act as an active watchdog over the oil industry in the country. Its duty is to ensure that all stakeholders follow at all times the rules and regulations.