Deadly Illegal Oil Refinery Explosion In Nigeria

An explosion at an illegal oil refinery in the Abaezi forest, in southeastern Nigeria, claimed at least 110 lives, during the night of April 22nd. This is the latest disaster connected to Nigeria’s illegal oil industry. Recently, 25 people were killed in an illegal refinery blast in October 2021. Nigeria is the largest crude oil producing country in the African continent. While this industry is a significant part of its $400 billion economy, Nigeria has continued to struggle with illegal oil refining activities. Approximately 200,000 barrels of the 1.5 million barrels of crude oil produced daily in the country is stolen.

In the illegal industry, crude oil stolen from pipelines is channeled into tanks. That oil is refined by boiling it at high temperatures. This is a dangerous process as the oil extracts are very flammable. While working in the illegal oil refining industry is dangerous, high levels of poverty and unemployment have contributed to these activities remaining viable in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

Oil production in general has contributed to significant pollution. The practice of flaring (burning off gas produced during oil extraction) has grown with the growth of illegal oil refining activities. This has led to significant air pollution, which can be seen in the form of clouds of soot. In Port Harcourt, a major city in the Niger Delta region, more patients are presenting with respiratory problems linked to this pollution.

For Nigeria, illegal oil refining has been costly economically and in terms of human lives. A 2019 Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative audit report indicated that Nigeria lost 42.25 million barrels of crude oil to theft. This loss is valued at $2.77 billion but the full extent of the losses may be higher. The stolen oil is subsequently sold in Nigeria’s black market or exported. There have been government crackdowns on these activities, leading to 128 out of 142 illegal refining sites in the Rivers state being destroyed. However, authorities continue to struggle with effectively curtailing these activities.

In the aftermath of this disaster, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered security forces to intensify their efforts to shut down these illegal refineries. He offered condolences to the families of the victims and stated that those responsible for the explosion would be brought to justice.

In a country with high levels of unemployment, jobs in this illegal sector of the economy have provided employment for many struggling to find work. Damage from the oil industry in the oil-rich Niger Delta has adversely impacted fishing and farming in the region. In addition to this work incentive, widespread corruption has also served to protect and bolster these activities. Addressing the economic hardships that people in Nigeria’s Niger Delta face must be an integral part of a comprehensive strategy to improving quality of life and ending illegal oil refining activities that are significantly harmful to people and their environment. A failure to address underlying economic conditions and hardships means a continuance of these dangerous activities as well as a persistent risk of more disasters such as this one.