1. Background of the Study

The environment is the life support system given by the Creator to mankind. Sometimes in the past, the three components of the environment – air, soil and water were pure, virgin, undisturbed, uncontaminated and basically most hospitable. Today, the reverse is the case due to progress in science and technology which evidently leads to environmental degradation and serious ecological imbalance which in the long run may prove disastrous for mankind (Sharma, 2002).

The Niger Delta regionwhich has a geographical area measuring about 70,000 square kilometers lies in the southern most part of Nigeria, stretching from the Nigeria to Cameroun boundary in the East to Ondo to Ogun state boundary in the West. The area is bounded in the North by Enugu, Ebonyi, Anambra, Kogi and Ekiti states, with the Atlantic coast forming the general boundary in the South. The region is comprising about 1,600 communities in nine states namely, Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross river, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo and Rivers, with more than 20 million people.The strategic location of the area and the activities of the people placed the region on a strong pedestal for socio economic growth quite easily, especially during the period of the trans-saharan trade in Africa, (Udeme, 2004).

Crude oil exploration and production in Nigeria have been on the increase since 1958 when it was discovered in commercial quantity. These replaced earning from agriculture which in the past was the major source of the nation’s livelihood. The Niger Delta region which islocated in the south- south geopolitical zone of Nigeria is the nation’s oil and gas belt as it hosts almost all of Nigeria’s oil and gas resources. It is also the nation’s economic jewel, as it is the goose that lays the golden egg of oil and gas which account for over 80% of government revenue, 95% of export receipts and 90 % of foreign exchange earnings. Beyond oil and gas, the region is Africa’s largest wetland, with a rich diversity of flora and fauna and an expansive terrain of fresh water swamp, seasonal swamps, lowlands, transverse with estuaries, lakes, canals, creeks, rivers and rivulets (World Bank, 2002).

The Niger Delta region which is richly endowed with natural resources, oil and gas deposit and abundance of human and material resources including good agricultural lands, extensive forests, excellent fisheries, as well as a well-developed industrial base is subjected to severe environmental degradation due to largely ecologically unfriendly exploration of oil and state policies that expropriate the indigenous peoples of the Niger Delta of their rights to these natural resources. (Alagoa, 2004).

Oil exploration has caused disastrous impacts to the people and their environments. The region which consists of diverse ecosystems of mangrove swamps, fresh water swamps, and rain forest is now characterized by complete contamination of streams and rivers, forest, destruction of biodiversity, air and soil pollution among others due to oil pollution in the region. This adversely affects the livelihood of the indigenous people who depend solely on the ecosystem services for survival

Studies have equally showed that, the quantity of oil spilled over 60 years was at least 9-13 million barrels, which is equivalent to 50 Exxon Valdez spills (Ezeanyika, 2006). Throughout the 60 years of crude oil exploration and production in the Niger Delta region, oil drilling and refining have caused unquantifiable devastation to the people of the region as the people are no longer engaged in their fishing, farming, and hunting activities which were the mainstay of their economy. This ecologically productive region has suffered extensive soil degradations, forest clearing, toxic discharges, habitat degradations, dredging fillings and significant alteration by extensive oil spills and pipeline construction from the petroleum industry of particular concern   in the region (Okonta and Douglas, 2001).

The ecological devastation in the Niger Delta region occasioned by oil exploration and production has degraded most agricultural lands in the area and has turned the hitherto productive areas into wastelands. With increasing soil infertility due to the destruction of soil micro- organisms and dwindling agricultural productivity, farmers have been forced to abandon their lands, to seek nonexistent alternative means of livelihood. Aquatic life has also been destroyed with the pollution of traditional fishing grounds, exacerbating hunger and poverty (Gbadegesin, 2000).

Ibaba (2001: p12), observes thus:

Olibiri is a shadow of its former self. Farming activities which used to be the mainstay of the community’s economy has been paralyzed as farmlands has been destroyed, hunting business reducing, fishing activities grounded and aquatic life virtually castrated by many years of oil prospecting and exploration in the region.

The above observation connotes that oil spillages and gas flaring have destroyed the very basis of the economy upon which many Niger Delta Communities depend.  Drinking water is polluted, fishing and farming activities have been impeded and ecosystem is degraded. Oil spill has significantly affected the health and food security of rural people living near oil facilities. Today, Niger Delta is characterized by several environmental problems ranging from soil erosion, water pollution, global warming, absence of socio economic and infrastructure development to abject poverty.

 As noted by Aboribo (2008), the poverty incidence and unemployment have been on a visible upward trajectory in the Niger Delta region over the 60 years of oil exploration and exploitation.  Official statistical sources place about 72 percent of households in endemic poverty in the region thereby reducing the inhabitants to a level below the World Bank benchmark definition of poverty (the World Bank benchmark for poverty is 2 dollars per day). These, however, have become sources of agony, pain and disillusionment for the people of the region. The people of the region where the nation derives greater percentage of her natural resources have persistently complained that adequate attention have not been accorded to them with regards to development, employment, social amenities etc. despite the environmental devastation resulting from oil, which has resulted in loss of lives, personnel and abject poverty (Ijibunu, 2008).

Ikelegbe2004 :(p13), rightly asserted that, obtuse neglect by successive governments and massive degradation in the region occasioned by oil production and export activities contribute to the bane of the Niger Delta. The Niger Delta situation is a clear cut case of injustice and unreserved neglect by multinationals who explore natural resources of the region with impunity in collaboration with their allies to the detriment of the environment and its people. This development has produced significant and far-reaching consequences in which industrial establishments and their assets have been the target of the youth (Duru, 2008).

Attah (2001), opined that the Niger Delta Region has largely become a cynosure because of widespread social unrest generated by neglect, environmental degradation and mindless spoliation among others. Moller (2005) also agreed that social unrest and pervasive youth restiveness in the area is as the result of soil degradation, environmental pollution, water contamination, inequality in resource allocation and deliberates under development spanning over three decades. The grim picture of injustice has been aggravated by the role of multinational companies whose primary aim is to exploit resources of host communities at the detriment of the people’s health and their environment.

Obereh and Donald (2001: p30), rightly noted that:

Activities of multinational companies have impaired and attenuated the value of aquatic resources for recreation, fishing and transportation. The continuous discharge of domestic sewage, industrial affluent, petroleum hydrocarbons, dredge materials and Garbage has aggravated problems of the Niger Delta. The indigenes have reacted to neglect in various ways ranging from disruption of industrial activities, violent demonstrations, hostage taking, vandalism of assets and communal clashes.

To further analyze the plights of the Niger Delta people, Ezeanyika (2006) asserts that, land left for the people has been polluted by activities of multinational companies and marine ecology has been degraded. Pollution of the rivers, streams and creek has continually debased the fishing occupation, which is the economic life wire of more than 70% of rural dwellers in the Niger Delta”. A sad example as illustrated by Nnaa (2007) shows where more than one million assorted fishes were seen dead in the swamp near the flow station of Elf petroleum (NIG) limited.Ikelegbe (2010: p9) in his own observation described the situation in the Niger Delta region as thus:

The contradictions are several; first while being the bread basket of the nation in a federal state, it has received only a trickle of oil based revenues particularly since 1981. Second, while providing the revenues for the development of other parts of the nation, it has not experienced much of these developments and the region is reputed to be one of the least developed and poorest in the country. Third, while being home to the oil and gas resources and oil infrastructure, it participates little in their control and management. These conditions create numerous crises. In addition, poverty and misery has produced mass discontent, resentment alienation, hostility and a generation of angry citizen.

Following the above postulations, Dode (2015) further asserted that, as consequences the region has been immersed by agitation, protest and struggle against perceived injustice, inequality, disinheritance, marginalization and neglect. These situations have slipped the region into insurrection and insurgency.

In the quest to address these environmental challenges, the federal and the state governments have enacted several environmental protection act and laws with the primary aim of ensuring to all Nigerians, a quality and safe environment adequate for their health and well-being, conserve and use the natural environment and resources for the benefit of present and future generations,  maintain and enhance ecosystems and ecological processes essential for the functioning of the biosphere and for the preservation of biological diversity (Owabukereyele,2000).Regrettably, the reverse is the case. Most environmental laws enacted by the government are not strictly complied with by the oil and gas operators thus making the problems of environmental pollution unabated.

Despite the putative environmental policy framework, successive Nigerian governments have not done much to implement either the National Policies on Environment (NPE) or any of the supporting environmental protection policy Acts. Gas is still being flared by oil companies in the communities where oil is extracted. This suggests explicitly that despite the reputed goal of ensuring an end to gas flaring, the effective implementation of relevant government environmental policies remains a mirage as a result of social, economic and political factors, including varying perceptions of security by the government on the one hand and local oil-bearing communities on the other.  It is apt to categorize government environmental policies that are being implemented and those that are not. This is difficult to achieve, given that none of these policies is being fully or effectively implemented by the government.  Indeed, officials at the Directorate of Petroleum Production (DPR) and the Federal Ministry of Environment claim substantial progress is being made in the implementation of these legislations. In reality, however, these policies are marked by failure at the level of implementation (Olujimi, 2010).

Consequence of persistent non-implementation or enforcement of these laws is in part seen in the continuous massive flaring of gas in the Niger Delta as in the case of Rumuekpe, Adibawa, Obirikom and Erema in Rivers State and Atabrikang in Ibeno Local Government Area, Akwa Ibom State. Indeed,there are several regulatory frameworks or regimes that fall into this category of policies that are not being effectively implemented. They include: Hydrocarbon Oil Refineries ACT, CAP H5 LFN 2004, Oil in Navigable Water ACT CAP 06 LFN 2004, Petroleum Act CAP P10 LFN 2004 and NDDC ACT, CAP N68, LFN 2004, Environmental Impact Assessment Act (Decree No.86 of 1992); Mineral Oils (Safety) Regulations Act 1963; among others.

The study however intends to identify and examine the various environmental problems associated with oil exploration and the challenges of environmental protection policies in Nigeria using Akwa Ibom state as a reference point.

  1. Statement of the Research Problem

There is no doubt that the Niger Delta region generates bulk of the revenue to the country which account for over 80% of government revenue, 95% of foreign exchange earnings and 95% of export receipt. With God-given wealth, the region plays a strategic role in the socio economic development of the Nation.

Going by such importance as a veritable source of raw material (crude), revenue spinner for both Federal Government and oil Multinational companies, one would expect the Niger Delta region, in return, to be one of the most developed region of the world in terms of physical infrastructures, human empowerment, advanced technology and tourist attraction etc. but on the contrary, the region has continued to live in conditions of social deprivation, abject poverty, untold hardship, neglect, unemployment, poor infrastructure, disorientation and disease arising from oil exploration and inhuman treatment by Oil Trans National Companies on one hand and obnoxious policies and outright neglect by the federal government of Nigeria on the other hand.

Oil pollution caused by spillages from the oil industries in Niger Delta region has caused massive destruction to farm lands, sources of drinking water, fishing grounds and declination of fish, crabs, mollusks, periwinkles and birds. The chemical properties of spilled oil often affect the productiveness of soil and pollute water bodies, thereby causing irreparable damage to agricultural lands as well as aquatic bodies.  This in turn affects the livelihood of the indigenous people who depend solely on Agriculture and ecosystem services for survival leading to increased poverty and displacement of people.

Over many years of oil exploration and Production in Nigeria, it has been observed that the Niger Delta region which would have been of advantaged than any other region in the drive for economic progress has been left underdeveloped. It is rather unfortunate, that after over sixty years of oil exploration and exploitation in Nigeria, the basic infrastructure seem to be in decay as roads for instance, are now death traps, power supply is epileptic, poverty remain endemic problem as most of the erstwhile fertile lands in Niger Delta region is infertile and devastated by pollution.

For oil-bearing Niger Delta, oil has been more of a curse than a blessing as the region which the bulk of the Nation’s economy is derived has witnessed severe environmental problems which occur during petroleum operations. In communities where oil exploration and production are staged, deforestation, erosion and destroyed of farmlands are the main sign points for this gift of nature. In the face of this careless nature of oil operators in the region, the environment is becoming increasingly inhabitable to aquatic life. Most aquatic organism like fish are now feeding on bacteria which have consumed dissolved oxygen from the spilled hydrocarbons, this evidently lead to rapid depletion of fish since they cannot withstand the high organic quantity of these hydrocarbons. The rate of death is even higher when fishes directly inhale such oxygen, thus making the region increasingly uninhabitable for other aquatic animals as well.

Health risk is also a major problem faced by the residents of the oil producing area due to some dangerous substances and poisonous chemicals   released into the atmosphere which causes depletion of the ozone layers which give rise to global warming. For instance, residents of Ibeno Local Government area of Akwa Ibom state particularly those living near Qua Iboe terminal have complained of health problem such as asthma, breathing difficulties, pain, headaches, nausea, throat irritation, cancer as well as chronic bronchitis, as the result of the poisonous chemicals released into the environment. This has been judicially upheld to constitute a gross violation of the fundamental human right to health in the Nigerian case of Jonah Etengv. Mobil. In this case, the Federal high court held that, gas flaring and oil spillage by Mobil in the course of their oil exploration and production activities in the applicant’s community were violations of the fundamental human right to a healthy environment and dignity of human persons. Aside from the observation of the court stated above, there is also the problem of acid rain, which destroys houses occupy by people living within the vicinity where oil exploration and production activities are carried out.