A long-drawn-out delay in the completion of a processing plant to harvest the gas for power generation has bothered operators of the Jubilee oilfield, where the gas is held.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has its own challenges, was immediately thrown the challenge of deciding whether or not to allow Tullow Oil and its partners to flare the associated gas from the field and allow for optimum oil production.
Kojo Agbenor-Efunam, EPA’s Deputy Director for Oil and Gas, likens the situation to that of a family that is bent on keeping all five eggs it owns in a bid to make them all hatch and give it more eggs in the future. This same family, he said, is protein-deficient and so must decide whether or not to make an omelette of some of the eggs.
“That is the dilemma we found ourselves in,” he said. So on June 1 gas-flaring officially started at the Jubilee oilfield.
The application for gas-flaring, according to Mr. Efunam, was made in January 2014 and the flaring started on June 1.
“It was a very difficult and tough decision for us in view of the zero-flaring position we had taken. When the issue came up, there were three alternatives: the first was the gas-flaring, which we said no to at the time, in January. The second was to speed up completion of the gas processing plant; and the third was to drastically reduce oil production because the amount of oil produced is proportional to the gas that is generated. So the industry was asked to start implementing the two alternatives — reducing oil production and for the processing plant to be completed by March or April.”
But April flew past and the gas processing plant was still not ready; thus the EPA had to throw in the towel, allowing a maximum of 500million cubic feet of gas per month to be flared until October, the latest in several missed completion dates for the gas-processing plant.
This is how Mr. Efunam responded to the question of whether the EPA is in a position to verify whether the operators of the oilfield are flaring within limits: “The question normally arises as to whether as the EPA we have a person there to monitor the flaring process. The answer is simply this: even if you have a person there, whatever information he gets will still have to come from the operators, because you cannot go and install your own equipment to tell you the measurements. This is the standard practice in the industry all over the world. You don’t have your personnel sitting on the platform; that is even dangerous for you as a regulator because if there is misreporting you cannot hold the operators responsible. They will tell you your man was there.”
A reporting mechanism, he said, exists by which the companies are to keep the EPA updated on the flaring process, and it is a criminal offence for the companies to misreport.
“Whoever provides the wrong information will be held liable,” he said, leaving the question still hanging as to how the EPA detects misreporting.
Some industry analysts, particularly the African Centre for Energy Policy (ACEP), have kicked against gas-flaring — citing various environmental concerns and the need to preserve the gas for power generation.
“Their [Jubilee partners] argument is that they cannot continue re-injecting the gas because it could jeopardise the reservoirs. I perfectly agree. But how did they bring the gas out? They brought the gas out as a result of the oil they were getting. So the economics of how much you lose leaving the oil underground is not material now. What is material is the effect of the flaring on the environment and the economic cost in terms of how we are wasting the gas,” John Peter Amewu, a Senior Researcher at ACEP, told the B&FT.
“Currently we are pumping about 110,000 barrels, and that comes along with the equivalent volume of gas. So if we can reduce production to between 40,000-50,000 barrels of oil per day, we will be saving half the amount of gas that we are flaring or wasting. As such, within the period that the infrastructure project will be completed for the gas to be used, we will still have sufficient gas in the reservoir for power generation.”
The EPA man argues, however, that the matter is not as simple as just reducing oil production.
“Even if you reduce oil production, you are going to produce the gas and it means you have to re-inject it into the reservoir. But the current challenge we have is that continual reinjection will further destroy the field. So if we keep re-injecting the gas, we will destroy the wells. Should we continue that, and destroy the field so that the lifespan we expect for the field will not be reached?”
Although gas-flaring globally has been associated with dire health and environmental consequences, Mr. Efudam said Ghana’s gas is “sweet” and contains no sulphur, the major hazardous element — although it has a bit of nitrogen, another dangerous gas.
“Looking at the location of the Jubilee Field, when you flare the gas, by the time the emissions come to the nearest land it would have dispersed. There is what is called dispersion modelling, which you do to know the environment that can likely be affected, and we have done that,” he added.
Some of the health and environmental consequences associated with gas-flaring elsewhere in the world include acid-rain, crop-failure, water pollution and a decline in the population of many species of animals.
The chemicals and toxins that are released from the burning gas infiltrate the soil, water and plants of surrounding areas.
According to a report titled “Unhealthy Effects of Upstream Oil and Gas Flaring” by the Sierra Club — a grassroots environmental organisation — gas-flares in Alberta, Canada, for instance have been associated with increased risk of dermatological problems, spontaneous abortion, and numerous kinds of cancer.
The gas that is burnt through high pipes at oil production sites disperses its pollutants over wide areas, and those pollutants can cause damage to humans at concentrations that are far below what can be detected by smell. In other words, the health risks are not detectable by sufferers until the damage is done.
By Basiru Adam | B&FT Online | Ghana
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