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December 18, 2012 | News Special Report

Where There Is oil; There Is Spillage

Georgina Otoo
Ghana Is Said To Be One Of The Fastest Growing Economies Due To Its Emerging Oil & Gas Industry
Ghana Is Said To Be One Of The Fastest Growing Economies Due To Its Emerging Oil & Gas Industry

Oil spills are avoidable but seemingly inevitable aspect of offshore oil operations as evidenced throughout the world. Is Ghana really prepared for any Catastrophe? Georgina Otoo probes.

The discovery of oil in Ghana in commercial quantities in 2007 and the commencement of its production in 2010 is expected to have a positive impact on the economy.

On the other hand, the discovery raises a number of crucial and critical questions regarding the extent to which relevant policies, regulatory and monitoring mechanisms and particularly environmental measures have been put in place to effectively respond to any eventual oil disaster.

Oil spills are an avoidable but seemingly inevitable aspect of offshore oil operations as evidenced throughout the world.

An oil spill, in the case of Ghana, would mean the actual or probable release, discharge, or escape of oil into the country's marine waters, and this could occur when a significant amount of oil is accidentally released into the environment.

Generally though, this release could be on land or in water bodies, the latter being more common. Oil spills are serious environmental disasters, often leading to significant, long-term impacts on the ecology and socio-economic activities of an area.

The questions about environmental policies, regulatory and mitigation measures become all the more crucial for Ghana in the light of reported minor spills by Kosmos Energy, and especially given the recent major spills in the Gulf of Mexico, the March 1989 catastrophic Exxon Valdex spill off the coast of Alaska, and the periodic experiences in the Niger Delta over the years.

Industry watchers have opined that besides the anticipated “blessings” of enhanced prosperity, the commercial offshore production of oil and gas raises issues about the country's level of preparedness to protect the coastal communities and habitat.

Questions have been raised with the implementation of the fundamental petroleum policy for the country, where government out-lined its commitment to promote sound and sustainable environmental practices in the management of petroleum operations, and to ensure compliance with environmental health and safety regulations as well as standards.

The Ghana Petroleum Development Master Plan, the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan,as well as the National Oil Spill Strategic Plan constitute the cornerstones of the policy framework for a national response to a possible oil catastrophe and environmental degradation.

The brisk exploration activities and discoveries in the country's offshore West Cape Three Points and other West African countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, have increased risk levels for oil spillage.

A recent study, which covered the country's 550 kilometres of coastline, helped in determining the ecological diversity and the vigorous economic activities along the coast, which is densely populated with important cities, it revealed the country was at risk and risk zones were determined.

The initial studies was undertaken as far back as 1986, with the assistance of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), to assess the country's risk level.

The findings led to national contingency plans being mapped out among stakeholder institutions, among which are the Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA), Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority (GPHA), Ghana National Petroleum Corporation (GNPC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Mr. Kojo Agbenor-Efunam, Principal Programme Officer (Oil and Gas) at the EPA making a presentation in Accra explained that in times of a marine oil spill, it was not the magnitude of the spill that was problematic but the management aspect of it.

In November 2011, a large quantity of oil believed to have been spilled by an oil exploration company was sighted along the coast in the Ahanta West District in the Western Region.

The oil spillage covering about 8,000 meters, which was detected by communities along the coast, gradually moved towards the shore.

This denied hundreds of the residents and tourists access to the beaches. The lives of other marine mammals were also affected as dead fishes were washed ashore.

At Asmkow, a fishing community, the spilled oil had washed ashore affecting the beaches and economic activities and was gradually moving towards other communities such as Mpatato and Adjoa in the Ahanta West District of the Western region.

According to some members of the communities, they saw a long stretch of oil surfacing on the sea in the afternoon. They said after the high current had washed some of the oil ashore, they realised that it was light crude oil either from operations of an oil company or a tanker.

The effects of this spillage, although small as compared to others, still remain fresh and haunt the coastal communities and the entire enclave.

Approximately 699 barrels of mud, which contains poisonous heavy metals, has been spilled on the country's waters by oil companies on three occasions and that has affected the country's marine ecosystem and the activities of the coastal communities.

The environmental devastation following the spillage has been rated, without doubt, the worst of its kind in the history of catastrophic events happening to the country's ecosystem in recent times.

Critics have raised concerns about a seeming gap in both state and international law regimes governing oil spillage in the country.

Arguably,there is currently no single integrated pollution legislation in Ghana. Pollution control exists as part of the environmental and water resource legislation.

Marine pollution is dealt with in the Oil in Navigable Waters Act 1964 (Act 235). A Marine Pollution Act is currently in the draft stages of the legislative process which, when enacted, will empower the Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA) to regulate marine pollution.

Ghana has no specific waste law, general waste regulations, or hazardous waste regulations,

as has South Africa. There are no regulations concerning the handling, treatment and disposal of industrial and hazardous wastes and no full waste classification system.

The basis for addressing any breach of environmental regulation therefore needs to be examined and developed to provide the needed assessment baselines.

Another important area of concern is Environmental Sensitivity Index Mapping (ESIM). The tasks of the ESIM are to identify and map areas sensitive to oil pollution, prioritize sensitive areas in the operational areas to effect quick oil spill response strategy, describe ecosystems and other facilities of special socio-economic importance, and integrate physical, ecological and socio-economic concerns into a comprehensive spill response document.

An oil spill response has to do with actions taken to confirm the presence of a spillage, stop its flow from the source, contain it, collect it, protect areas from damage by it, mitigate its effects on the environment, and clean up wildlife and areas contaminated by the spill.

So far the discoveries made in Ghana are in the Deepwater Tano and West Cape Three Points blocks, which are all offshore.

Oil spills from these offshore areas could eventually end up on the coast and could have devastating environmental impacts on the shorelines of Ghana to its eastern border and beyond.

Oil Spill Rescue Agenda
The Jubilee Operators have assured of adequate equipment and trained staff with superior capacity to deploy and rescue affected coastlines in the event of an oil spillage and that 76 sensitivity areas have been identified.

Mr. Gayheart Mensah, External Affairs and Communication Manager at Tullow Oil in an interview said: “Tullow is fully prepared with modern environmental standards that would respond to emergencies like oil spillage and other related contingencies.

“Tullow's environmental and safety standards are a major focus of the company, and we make sure that all our systems have the required international standard to ensure that all equipment we use in our facilities offshore are tried and tested in terms of required environmental standards.

“We make sure that all properties and facilities are monitored; we have well-trained personnel who are experienced in environmental and safety and monitoring in our processes to ensure that they are able to stand the test of time.

“In addition to that, every staff is trained in environmental safety, and we have what is called the stop process; for instance, any staff who identifies hazard in any aspect of our operation or processes is empowered to stop the process immediately and ensure that whatever he/she has identified is corrected before the process is continued.

He added: “Over and above that, we tie into various emergency response systems. We have capacity in-country to manage a certain level of environmental mishap and we have equipment and facility for that; we have trained people for that.

The FPSO itself comes with some facility that can manage any environmental hazard. Beyond that, we tie into sub-regional systems.

“For instance, whatever happens that is beyond our capacity to manage, we just have to set into motion and activate to sub-regional response -- and we will get a response from across the sub-region,” he said.

“There are all kinds of vessels and facilities that will be deployed to come and assist us to manage in case we are unable to rescue the affected communities. Again, we tie into international systems.

“It all depends on the magnitude of what has happened.

In-house, we can manage; sub-regionally we tie into very efficient response systems; internationally we tie into similar systems.”

Ms. Sherry Ayitey, the Minister of Environment, Science and Technology, has disclosed that the Marine Pollution Bill that is currently before parliament is expected to be passed into law by the end of this year.

The passage of the law will indeed come as positive news to the country, and indicates its readiness to safeguard inhabitant along the coast expected to be affected in times of oil spillage.

This will provide the legal framework that seeks to protect the population and ensure safety of the environment during the operations of the Jubilee partners.

“Hopefully, we believe the bill will be approved; and once it has been approved, it will be effective in the country ensure that our environment which the Jubilee partners are operating in is safe for all,” Ms. Ayitey told the media in Takoradi after her visit to the Jubilee Field.

Moreover, ZEAL Environmental Technologies Limited (ZETL), the company responsible for managing oil-waste at the Jubilee Field, says approximately 17 communities have been identified along the Western coastline -- starting from Takoradi to Half Assini in the Western Region -- as communities likely to be severely hit in the event of an oil-spill in the Jubilee Field.

According to Kwaku Ennin, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of ZETL in an interview in Takoradi, said as part of an oil-spill rescue plan, an agreement has been signed with the Jubilee partners to ensure maximum safety and protection of affected coastline communities.

ZETL's involvement, as part of the agreement, is to create awareness and ensure community engagement, educate and deepen awareness about oil-spills and their possible dangers.

Mr. Ennin explained that ZETL has been engaged in shore-line clean-up training in case there is a spill.

“We are training 22 of our staff to handle equipment, and these staff will transfer the acquired knowledge to the selected community members that will be targeted for mobilising the shoreline clean-up in times of spillage.

“The oil company has its equipment, but when it comes to mobilising the clean-up you have to involve the local communities. The oil company is helping with the training at the shoreline.

“We are now making preparation to set up two offices at Agam and Takoradi in the Western Region, to enable us effectively offer training assistance to the selected community members and also monitor activities of the coastline.

He disclosed that about 340 people have been trained, and these local community members are dedicated and specialised people ready to rescue coastal dwellers during an oil-spill.

“We will engage them by paying them something small, but when there is a spillage they will be called and we will put them on.

“We have equipment, we have the boom; we train them how to contain and use the pump, the receptacles, and they have to control the place so that the people do not step in it,” he said.

Adequate compensation
Oil spillage compensation must commensurate with the full cost of the damage – environmental, national security, socio-economic costs and clean-up cost.

Under the Oil Pollution Act, companies are liable for a maximum of $75 million for oil spill response and cleanup. Capping liability excites risk-taking.

Unfortunately for Ghana too, Clause 47 of the petroleum (exploration and production) bill, which deals with offences and penalties which may be applicable to environmental damage seems to have a liability cap and needs to be critically examined.

While some offences can be capped others cannot, particularly those that border on environmental degradation. This is because valuation of environmental degradation is full of uncertainties.

The clause also falls short of the tested valuation method or techniques to estimate an optimum compensation for any liability. Legislative instruments on best practice valuation methods or techniques would do a lot of good to Ghana.

The hasty manner the penalty for the Jubilee oil spills were slapped raised eyebrows as to which methodology or formula was adopted, particularly when experts all over the world recognised that almost all ecosystem valuation methods or techniques have shortcomings, not even the acclaimed Contingent Valuation technique.

Compensation allocation regimes for causing an environmental damage in Ghana leave much to be desired.

The petroleum exploration and production bill must address this by providing amendments as to which formula to adopt in the allocation of compensation with emphasis on environmental clean-up cost.

On the other hand, the bill could provide that in such an eventuality, a formula on allocation of the compensation be presented to Parliament for consideration and approval.

There is the need for concerted and comprehensive human resource development and sensitization in the sector; the latter particularly for coastal communities.

Processes for oil spill response acquisition, as well as facilities for treatment and disposal of oil and hazardous wastes, have to be accelerated.

It is important to activate broad collaboration at the regional level to harmonize national laws and regulations and synergize response capabilities.

This project was sponsored by Programme For African Investigative Journalism (PAIR)

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