After six years of gestation in the National Assembly, the Petroleum Industry Bill deserves to be passed. It is an obligation the lawmakers must discharge before their tenure expires early next year. The bill, the second with the longest shelf life in the parliament, after the Freedom of Information Bill, is being held back by leeches in the oil and gas sector. The Nigerian economy, dependent on oil, is the worse off.
The Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who rekindled interest in the bill in an opinion article in the Financial Times of London recently, said some Nigerians and foreigners “who benefit from the status quo, either through favourable oil deals or favourable treatment by the Nigerian tax system,” are the masterminds of its non-passage. This is a fact and it is condemnable.
However, it is painful that this cabal has been allowed to perpetrate this sabotage. We believe that the government has all the institutional muscle to see the bill through, if it really desires. The bill, which this legislature inherited from its predecessor, is at the second reading stage at the Senate.
The PIB template has the overall goal of entrenching transparency and best practices in the oil and gas sector. If passed, and signed into law, oil company managers will be made answerable, while the power to call for a company’s returns, gas flaring prohibition, an agency to regulate the downstream sector, more fillip to local investment and taking responsibility over the environment, would be inexorable with business operations. Delay in passing the bill, experts say, has forced the international oil companies to slow down new investments, unsure of how the envisaged new environment will ultimately affect them. Since 2008, the bill has undergone some metamorphosis under different administrations.
At the Oil and Gas conference in Abuja last month, the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Petroleum Resources, Danladi Kifasi, said the changes proposed in the bill would create huge investment in the Nigerian deep water, which volume of oil ranks top in Africa. Besides, it will be a vehicle for job creation. With all this, it is baffling that the federal lawmakers, who pride themselves on being the people’s representatives, still dither or pander to the whims and caprices of lobbyists.
Senate President, David Mark, once attributed the delay to the confusion the so-called different versions of the bill created. He said, “The problem with the PIB was that when it showed up, there were so many versions. As many as three or four versions were in the hands of senators and members of the House of Representatives.” This is a downright betrayal of trust. This can hardly be a plausible reason for the long wait. There are established channels of submitting an Executive Bill to the parliament. The budget or Appropriation Bill is the most important piece of work before the parliament annually; many versions of it have never appeared any year. So, if the PIB proliferated in the two chambers last session, it was because the lawmakers encouraged it for unedifying reasons.
To promote the bill, Kifasi said the ministry has coughed up N500 million already. More cash may still go down the drain as the bill has yet to be freed from the labyrinth of vested interests, and filibustering in parliament. This is unreasonable and promotes a culture of waste and corruption.
The legislature should pause and reflect on the harm it has done to the economy by not passing the bill a long time ago. Further delay means stoking the present disorder in the downstream sector: gas supply shortage for electricity plants, continued importation of petroleum products, and its accompanying treasury looting through the so-called subsidy. This reached its zenith in 2011 when over N2 trillion was paid, igniting a national protest in January 2012.
Oil and gas business without the PIB has imperilled the lives of people in the oil producing communities as the IOCs are not held to account for countless oil spills that have degraded their environment. For instance, it will take about 30 years to remediate polluted Ogoni land in Rivers State at the cost of $1 billion, according to a United Nations Environment Programme report in 2011. Over 40 years of oil exploration and exploitation have contaminated drinking water in Ogoni land with benzene, a cancer-causing agent, and other toxic pollutants. Aquatic life is no more, while the soil contamination is five metres deep.
This is in sharp contrast to the speedy handling of the spill of 4.9 million barrels in the Gulf of Mexico in the United States, in April 2010 that killed 11 people. The Barack Obama-led administration did not only compel the British Petroleum, the firm culpable for the act, to summarily clean up the coast, it also made it to pledge $9.6 billion in compensation, out of which $3.78 billion had been paid by the end of December 2013.
But here, the IOCs take the country for a ride. Consequently, Nigerians will hold Jonathan, the Mark-led Senate and the House of Representatives under Aminu Tambuwal’s watch liable if the insanity and thieving that govern operations in the oil sector transcend their tenure.