Despite govt’s repeated promises, importation of dirty fuels continues in Nigeria


In June 2016, members of the Economic Community of West African States convened for a two-day workshop in Abuja.

The sole aim was to chart ways to transit into using low sulphur fuels in their respective countries.

At the end of the event, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire agreed to ban the importation of Europe’s dirty fuels, thus limiting sulphur in fuels from 3000ppm to 50ppm.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said the move would help to drastically reduce vehicle emissions and help over 250 million people to breathe safer and cleaner air.

By the end of that year, Nigeria again hosted a sub-regional high-level ministerial meeting on low sulphur fuels, which was held in Abuja and hosted by former minister of environment, Amina Mohammed.

Joined by Ghana, Togo, Benin and Côte D’Ivoire, the countries agreed to adopt low sulphur diesel fuel standards of 50 ppm, and a target of July 2017 was set. Only Ghana met the deadline.

By the set date, Mrs Mohammed, now deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, again reiterated the Nigerian government’s goal to reduce the sulphur in fuels imported into the country, starting from July 2017.

“Everybody knows that this is going to take some efforts, which is why we gave the six-month notice,” she said at the time. “What is more important is that we are working with the refineries on a long-term approach.”

The deadline would be shifted by another year.

Repeated promises to end the importation of dirty fuels have not been fulfilled by the Nigerian government
Repeated promises to end the importation of dirty fuels have not been fulfilled by the Nigerian government

A year after the last deadline was set, officials at the major importer of petroleum products, Nigeria’s public oil company, NNPC, rehashed Nigeria’s resolve to end the importation of dirty fuels into the country by July 2018.

At another high-level ministerial meeting organised by ECOWAS, which was held between February 5 and 7, 2020, in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, 15 environment and energy ministers of the regional bloc, including that of Nigeria, met again.

ECOWAS environment ministers met in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to discuss how to stop the sale of sulphur-laden fuels in the region. Credit: UNEP

Nigeria alongside others adopted a comprehensive set of regulations for introducing cleaner fuels and vehicles in the region in order to ensure that their fuel’s sulphur content meet global standard peaks at 50 ppm.

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However, petrol and kerosene remain over 20 times (1000 ppm) and diesel 30 times what is required to be within safe limits.

Oil-rich, but not oil independent

Nigeria’s production of crude oil, which is sweet because of its low sulphur content, non-acidic because it contains less CO2 and has high API gravity, is put at about 2.5 million barrels daily.

Energy giants like Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil do the drilling in the Niger Delta region of the country and they in turn pay production entitlements, taxes, royalties and fees, and other remittances to the Nigerian government.

Of the volume drilled, little is refined in state-owned refineries, which for several years have not been functioning despite draining billions of naira, and this little cannot meet the volume for national needs.

To bridge the deficit, the country turns to foreign refineries, including European refineries, from where refined and highly sulphured fuels – because they are cheaper – are imported into Nigeria, much to the chagrin of health and environmental campaigners and at the detriment of the well-being of Nigerians.

According to the statistics bureau, NBS, in 2019, imported petrol reached 20.89 billion litres, up from 20.14 billion litres in 2018 and 17.3 billion litres in 2017. Petroleum imports cost the country N289.46 billion in Q1 2019, almost tripling to N837.67 billion by Q2.

When these fuels are imported into Nigeria through each refinery jetty, they are blended to Nigeria’s standard (as set by the Standard Organisation of Nigeria) for cost optimization, Saheed Abolaji, a quality control personnel at Schneider and Schroeder Services Limited, an Edo-based energy firm, explained.

He said the blending processes include dewatering, re-gassing and desulfurization.

In spite of these processes, fuels consumed in the country still contain as high as 1,000 ppm of sulphur content, unlike neighbouring Ghana and other East African cousins like Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda who have transitioned to 50 ppm fuel standard, the acceptable threshold in Europe.

“There is a serious problem with our environmental control which is seriously affecting us,” Mr Abolaji noted.

He added that “the contention with environmental pollution has to mostly do with the practices of waste management and also the combustion of our exhaust vehicle design” as most of the used vehicles imported into Nigeria are not up to the standard in Europe.

Unregulated importation of used cars aiding the pollution of the Nigerian air

Lax regulations to restrict the quality of the vehicles being imported into the country, coupled with the aforesaid poor fuel quality, has ensured that air pollution continues to dog the country.

Nigeria is home to the highest fleets of used light-duty vehicles after Serbia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a 2020 report by UNEP.

Nigeria is the world's third-highest destination of used light-duty vehicles

The imported fuels cost Nigerians huge outlays with NBS saying Nigerians spent 5 per cent, or some ₦2 trillion, of their incomes on fuel and electricity in 2019.

According to the NNPC, 2.26 billion litres of petroleum products were sold and distributed in the country in December as against 1.72 billion litres in November.

Better fuel will cost more

As identified by a world bank study, the top three sources of PM2.5 (tiny dangerous pollutants) in Nigeria’s commercial centre of Lagos (where, against the 10 μg/m3 guideline set by WHO for annual mean PM2.5 concentration level, it can be as high as 68 μg/m3) are overstretched road transport, industrial emissions and generators.

Generators made the list because of erratic electricity, which the world bank says 80 million Nigerians do not have access to, an albatross that pushed them to spend an estimated $14 billion a year on small-scale generators, and made Nigeria lose $29 billion in 2019.

By implication, local consumption of fuel will continue to surge in a country like Nigeria with a teeming population of over 200 million.

With fuel subsidies soon to be stopped as promised by the government, for Nigerians to get cleaner fuels to meet their massive demands, they may have to pay more.

However, this may be a tall order for many in a country where about a quarter of the population live on less than N377 daily and about a third are unemployed.

Yet, it is a choice that has to be made.

A litre of petrol averaged 5.36 Ghanaian cedi (which is about N355 at N66 to a cedi) between February and March in Ghana, a price that increased by over 50 per cent since 2017.

A price indicator at a fuel station in the Awoshie area of Ablekuma North Municipality, in the Greater Accra Region of Ghana. Credit: Yusuf Akinpelu

In Kenya, petrol currently retails at about 125 Kenyan shilling, which, at N3.46 to a Kenyan shilling, is equivalent to N432.5.

An effort to raise the pump price of petrol (currently N162) as high as this is likely to be met with heavy pushback from Nigerians; except their purchasing power improves just as significantly, analysts believe.

A fuel station in the Wuse area of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital

Ghana for one has been able to reduce deprivations from access to healthcare, education, and improved living standards by nine percentage points from 55 per cent in 2011 to about 46 percent in 2017.

When this was compared to the purchasing power of the 31 million population, about 6 million Ghanaians (or about 1 in 5) are concurrently poor in both measures of poverty.

There are, nonetheless, indications that the pump price of petrol will increase in Nigeria in the coming months after NNPC boss, Mele Kyari, announced that the government was unwilling to continue subsidising petrol.

With the cost of importation and handling charges amounting to N234 per litre, the government has pegged the selling price at N162 per litre, a variation that the British government said cost Nigeria N10 trillion between 2006 and 2018; and could cost the country about N102.5 billion, according to an analysis by PREMIUM TIMES.

(Support for this report was provided by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) through its Natural Resource and Extractive Programme).

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