Natural resources are the wealth of any country and the discovery and exploitation of such resources give hope to the citizens, as they are hailed as the beginning of a country’s economic asset.
The wealth created from a natural resource could bring foreign earnings into the country and improve the living conditions of the population, when managed well.
Natural resource wealth thus forms a strong base for income creation and sustained economic development in a country.
In June 2007, Ghana officially announced oil and gas discovery about 40 miles offshore in the western part of the country.
Government licensed two companies, namely Kosmos Energy and Tullow Oil, to engage in the exploration and production of the oil and gas reserves.
According to the development plan, Ghana will produce an initial 120,000 barrels of oil a day and 120 million cubic feet of gas by 2010.
As expected, the oil discovery has increased investor interest in Ghana in the sector leading to increased exploratory activities.
But there is a serious downside in the development of all natural resources, which is the negative impact on the environment.
Environmental pollution is one of the major challenges that countries engaged in the exploitation of natural resource have to tackle.
And in the case of oil and gas, the real concern is the likely cause of environmental damage in the catchment areas, given the woes of countries that are living with the problems.
Overcoming these concerns will require well planned environmental management and control, to mitigate the effects on the people and the ecology.
Ghana is not new to the damaging effects of the exploitation of a natural resource to the environment; it has some experience with environmental pollution caused by the metal mining industry.
Communities in the mining areas visibly suffer a lot of environmental damage and hazards.
In many instances, the sources of their drinking water are polluted with toxic chemicals and the people are infected with strange skin diseases, as a result of chemicals emitted into the atmosphere.
The cyanide spillage caused by Goldfields Ghana Limited (GGL) in 2001 is a classic example of poor environmental management in Ghana.
On October 16, 2001, Goldfields Ghana Limited at Tarkwa, experienced cyanide spills from its pipeline. The spillage drained into two rivers causing the death of several fishes and plants.
The rivers, which served as sources of drinking water for the local villages, were polluted giving the people serious health problems.
State institutions mandated to promote good environmental practices sat unconcerned and it took the initiative of a local NGO, the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining, (WACAM ), to compel the Ministry of the Environment to direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Ghana Water Research Institute to conduct independent investigations into the incident.
This is a typical example of how Ghana had poorly controlled and managed environmental issues.
Thus the ongoing oil and gas production make the issue more alarming because it is an offshore activity, a virtually new area for the watchdogs of the environment.
The environmental problems associated with oil and gas exploration begin from the start of seismic survey through to the end of the operation.
The negative impacts on the environment at various stages of the industry are as follows:
a. Seismic Survey: – this leads to acoustic emission and accidental spills of chemicals that pollute the sea.
b. Exploration: – this causes drilling discharges, atmospheric emissions and spills leading to marine and air pollution affecting fishing.
c. Development and Production: – this causes operational discharges, atmospheric emissions, waste disposal and noise leading to ground and marine pollution.
d. Decommissioning or Abandonment: – this is the physical closure or removal of structures, waste disposal and dumping at sea leading to endangered fishing and navigation.
These incidents, if not managed properly, could lead to massive pollution of the sea, thus killing fishes, harming bird life, destroying beaches and the tourist industry.
Clearly, oil spills in the petroleum industry in particular have been a major concern because of recorded incidents like the Amoco Cadiz (1978), which spilled 220,000 tons of oil; the Exxon Valdez (1989), spilling 40,000 tons of oil and the Braer (1993), spilling 85,000 tons of oil.
The costs associated with cleaning up an oil spill are strongly influenced by the circumstances surrounding the spill including the type of product spilled, the location and timing of the spill, sensitive areas affected or threatened, liability limits in place, local and national laws, and clean-up strategy.
Oil spills often result in both immediate and long-term environmental damage, some of which can last for decades after the spill.
Alarmingly, despite these dangers, Ghana is yet to put in place an appropriate and comprehensive legal framework, two years into oil production in commercial quantities, to address environmental pollution, especially oil spillage, which is inevitable during exploration and production.
Government in 2010, put before Parliament the Petroleum Exploration and Production Bill 2010 (PEPB), which is to provide the necessary legal framework to address the challenges enumerated above.
However, government in 2011 withdrew the bill from Parliament following concerns by civil society that it (PEPB) contained deficiencies, which would render it ineffective.
Dr Steve Manteaw, Coordinator of the Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas, said if the bill was passed in that state, the country would be in a disadvantaged position when it came to addressing issues of oil spills.
With these revelations, one would think that work would be expedited on the bill to ensure its quick passage into law, and thereby establish the appropriate and comprehensive legal regime to address issues of environmental pollution.
The Ministry of Energy (MoEn), however, has told the Ghana News Agency (GNA) that the PEPB is still lying at the Attorney General’s Department for “fine-tuning”.
Mr Edward Bawa, Public Relations Officer of MoEn, said the Attorney General’s Department was studying the bill to “fine-tune it to be responsive to the emerging issues including safety and environmental concerns in the country’s oil and gas sector”.
When the PEPB is eventually passed into law, it will replace PNDC Law 84, which currently governs the operations of the country’s oil and gas sector.
The PEPB, among others, seeks to create an enabling environment for increased private sector participation and investment in the petroleum sector, and will strengthen the regulatory framework for healthy competition and quality assurance.
It also provides for comprehensive regulation of petroleum operations, rights and obligations of contractors and sub-contractors; establishes petroleum resources as the property of the republic; and vests petroleum resources, in their natural state within the jurisdiction of Ghana, in the President on behalf and in trust for the people.
Mr Bawa said the government recognized that the PNDC Law 84, which was passed over 25 years ago, lacked the capacity and scope to adequately govern the operations of the sector in line with international best practices, as well as safety and environmental concerns.
This explains why in 2009, Kosmos Energy stood its ground and challenged the authority of the Ghanaian Government to impose a fine on it for spilling 699 barrels of low toxicity oil-based mud into its offshore operational area.
Kosmos Energy described the fine as “totally unlawful, unconstitutional, ultra-vires and without basis”. The company argued that the government had no power under the country’s constitution or any other law of the country to impose a fine on any person in the event of oil spills.
The posture of Kosmos Energy should be an indication of what awaits Ghana in the event of a major oil spill in the proportion of what happened in 2010 in the Gulf Coast when the blowout of BP’s Macondo well triggered an explosion that spilled more than 757 million liters of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
This brings to the fore the need to urgently pass the PEPB to protect the country’s environment as she moves into full scale oil and gas production.
So, in the absence of a legal framework, what steps are being taken to prevent such disasters?
The Jubilee Partners, operators of the Jubilee Field, have on a number of platforms given assurances of adequate equipment and trained staff with adequate capacity to deploy to rescue affected coastlines in the event of oil spillage.
Mr Gayheart Mensah, External Affairs and Communications Officer of Tullow Ghana Limited, affirmed that the Jubilee Partners were fully prepared with modern equipment to adequately respond to environmental damages such as oil spills and other related emergencies.
Mr Daniel Amlalo, Executive Director of EPA, has also given the assurance that the Agency was working closely with the Ghana Maritime Authority, the Ghana Navy and the Jubilee Partners in the enforcement of the country’s environmental regulations and ensuring that they (Jubilee Partners) adhere to the regulations to prevent environmental disasters.
The question is whether these assurances are convincing, for if they were true, and the mechanisms put in place were rigid or water-tight as they claimed, how come Kosmos Energy, a partner on the Jubilee Field, spilled toxic substances into its operational area and instead of bearing full responsibility, challenged the authority of the Ghanaian Government to fine it?
In the case of EPA, if its past records as cited earlier are anything to go by, then we could be in for another disaster.
Mrs Hannah Owusu Koranteng, an Environmentalist and Executive Director of WACAM, told GNA: “I do not think the environment will be safeguarded without this law. Even though the mud spilled by Kosmos seemed not to have posed enough threat now, I believe the consequences are yet to follow and the earlier we put in place measures to deter such practices, the better.”
Mrs Koranteng said lessons from the metal mining industry in terms destruction being caused to the environment should guide the country to urgently pass the PEPB to avoid such fate befalling her again.
She said the current circumstance – beginning of oil production without the comprehensive legal framework to govern the sector – indicated that the country was unprepared to tackle environmental pollution which was a bedfellow of all natural resource exploitation.
Unfortunately, Ghana cannot avoid the natural consequences on the environment as a result of the exploration and production of oil and gas.
It is a truism that “where there is oil, there is spill”.
For communities close to the Jubilee Field, just like those close to the metal mining companies, who have been plagued with various health problems as a result of environmental pollution, oil spills present an even more frightening experience particularly where the extent to which legal frameworks to control, sanction and address compensation issues are not fully in place yet.
The people could lose their livelihood, as most of them are farmers and fishermen.
Bearing in mind that an oil company has spilled toxic mud into the marine ecosystem, and it will not be the last unless the country develops legislations to prevent it, Ghana can provide the best case study in environmental management of the oil and gas industry by enacting the appropriate and comprehensive legal framework to govern the operations of the industry.
The delay in the passage of the PEPB is therefore worrying.
With the institutional and legal frameworks in place, a solid foundation can be laid to effectively mitigate the negative impact of the exploration and production of oil and gas on the environment.