At about 11 pm on the night of 13 February, 2016, export operations were going on as normal at Shell’s export terminal in Forcados when the control room operators observed a dip in pressure and had to increase flow rates. Despite the increase, the pressure continued to go down, so they had to call the ship which was loading crude oil at the time to confirm if they were still receiving oil. The ship’s duty officer replied in the negative, so the control room was forced to stop pumping, and suspended export.

By daylight on Valentine’s Day, patrol boats were ordered to check the area for any anomalies, and an overfly was requested and conducted on the same day. The overfly confirmed the worst. There had been an oil spill, caused by a ruptured pipeline. The affected pipeline links the tank farm, which receives crude oil produced from oil wells in Delta, Ondo, Edo and parts of Bayelsa States, and the Crude Oil Loading Platform from where ships lift crude oil. The pipeline in question is a 48 inch pipeline, coated more than 10 centimetres in some sections, tethered to the seabed by reinforced concrete, and located 4 kilometres offshore. The ruptured section of this key pipeline is located at Tokebeleu, near Ojulagha, in Delta State.

The Forcados terminal has a capacity of 400,000 barrels of crude oil a day, a full quarter of Nigeria’s average export over the last few years. Shell has declared force majeure on 300,000 bpd. With the drop in oil prices, and a budget predicated on a daily production of 2.5 million barrels of crude, this is a huge blow to the nation’s already depleted revenues.

According to Shell, the loading of a vessel, MT Yamuna Spirit, began from 10.00 am on 12th February, 2016. Loading was suspended at 0.20 am on 14th February when the spill was noticed. Seplat and NPDC were informed to stop pumping crude oil to the terminal at 5.41 pm.

The next day, booms were deployed at 9:35 am to curtail the spread of the crude and a specialised surveillance aircraft arrived from Ghana at 10:30 am on 17th February to join the effort. Twenty seven skimmers and plastic tanks were also deployed for collection of recovered crude.

A joint investigation conducted by Shell, Seplat and the NNPC, determined that the cause of the export line leak was sabotage, and a previously unknown group, the Niger Delta Avengers has claimed responsibility. The group had earlier claimed responsibility for an attack on the Bonny Soku Gas Export Line last week. That line has an installed capacity of 1.1bcf/day and 30kb/d condensate.

On its part, Shell says it is yet to identify the source of the oil spill caused by attacks on the Forcados Crude Oil Export Pipeline in Burutu, Delta State.

“SPDC is investigating the source of a crude oil spill which was observed on water around Forcados Terminal on Sunday (February 14). This initial investigation will enable the company to quickly determine what suitable response is further needed.

“SPDC JV and third party production into the terminal is being suspended as a precautionary measure. SPDC has activated its Emergency Response and Oil Response teams to manage the incident, while booms and other oil containment resources have been deployed to the area to try to stop the spread of spilled oil. The support of industry group, Clean Nigeria Associates (CNA) has been enlisted for a comprehensive response to the spill. (Also relief materials have since been brought in for the affected communities)

“The relevant authorities including security agencies have been informed of the incident, preparatory to a joint investigation visit which will determine the cause and volume of oil spilled”, the email response said.

Environmental impact

The impact to the environment is significant, an estimated 13,000 barrels of crude had been pumped before the pressure drop was noticed and emergency procedures put in place to stop further pumping of products through the damaged line. As we speak, shorelines have been affected. The water, helped by prevailing winds, has carried spilled crude inland towards the creeks, and tidal movement is not helping. High tide in the region at this time of year averages 1.4 metres at high tide, and 0.5 metres at low tide, which means that a significant amount of oil has been washed ashore in the days since the incident happened.

The Minister for Environment has visited the affected site, but environmental activists ‎have questioned Shell’s claim that the leak was due to an act of sabotage.

“How are they sure of this?” asked Nnimmo Bassey, an environmental rights activist, who was part of the Nigerian government team that visited the spill site.

“They displayed thick concrete pieces collected from the sea bed at the point of leakage. The pipe is protected by being encased in concrete reinforced with wire mesh.

“The second point that they claimed provided irrefutable proof was that some communities people informed them that they heard a big bang at a time that coincided with when the spill occurred.”

How long will it take to fix

A few industry experts who spoke to SBM Intelligence reminded us about a theft which occurred on the same pipeline in 2014. That took six weeks to fix. The damage here appears even more extensive, and may take longer. The cost of fixing this may be as much as $100 million. Repair efforts are currently under way, with two teams leading the repair effort both at the affected creek and the sub-sea end. But this is being hampered by the tidal conditions as the crew can only work at low tides.

Mr. Bassey said that despite Shell’s claims that the spill was being contained and kept from the spreading to the shoreline, a visit to the village showed extensive pollution, especially their creek – the major source of potable water.

“There were booms and skimmers deployed by Shell here, but these were clearly rudimentary and ineffective. The crude oil simply coursed beyond the feeble booms while the skimmers whirled and skimmed what they could.”

Photo credit: Nnimmo Bassey