More than 100 people, including men, women, and children, were killed last week following an explosion at an illegal oil refinery in southern Nigeria, on the border of the country's Rivers and Imo states.

It's the second deadly explosion at an illegal refinery in Nigeria in just six months — after 25 people died at another site in Rivers state in October — and the tragedy has cast a further spotlight on both the human and environmental cost of these illegal refineries. 

But what are illegal oil refineries? Why do they exist? And what impact are they having on both people and the environment? 

What Are Oil Refineries? 

Gasoline (or petrol depending on which part of the world you're in), diesel, heating oil, kerosene, and liquefied petroleum gas, are all byproducts of a naturally occuring substance known as crude oil. Considerable crude oil reserves can be found deep in the earth across various regions of the world but the raw material itself isn't a usable product, even though it's highly flammable. 

Oil refineries are typically huge, expensive facilities where crude oil is converted to products (like petrol, diesel, etc.) we can use. 

Nigeria is the world's sixth largest exporter of crude oil, and the Niger Delta is a particular hub for crude oil activities — while aso being one of the world's most bio-diverse ecosystems. The Niger Delta is home to the world's third largest mangrove forest, and a huge variety of plants and animal species live there. 

For decades, communities close to these oil drilling operations and refineries have been severely affected by the business of crude oil, with people who rely on farms and fishing having lost their livelihoods as a result of pollution.

Getting the crude oil from the earth can result in spills that cause extreme environmental degradation. Oil refineries are also big consumers of limited energy resources and water, while also releasing harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Even the crude oil refining process can generate solid wastes that are difficult to clean and dispose of.

In fact, according to research published in 2020, the Niger Delta region is "one of the most environmentally impacted regions of the world caused by crude oil" — largely as a result of poor regulations, along with the practice of illegal oil refineries. 

How Does Illegal Oil Refining Work? 

Illegal oil refining is essentially siphoning off crude oil from pipelines and redirecting it into tanks, generally in bushes and forests, where the crude oil is boiled at high temperatures to turn it into different petroleum products. Over the last year alone, according to government estimates, more than $3 billion of oil has been stolen, also impacting funding for other needs like education and health care. 

In comparison to legal oil refineries, the set up at these illegal refineries is much less sophisticated and there are far fewer measures to protect people and the environment — making the process extremely dangerous and often sparking huge explosions, as well as causing land, water, and air pollution that impact the health and livelihoods of local communities. 

Image: Friends of the Earth International / Flickr

Why Do Illegal Refineries Exist?

Unemployment and poverty are two major factors that contribute to the persistence of oil theft and illegal refining. About a third of people in Nigeria are unemployed, while a BBC investigation into the illegal oil refinery business cited professionals — such as a photographer and a computer science graduate — who were working on the refineries as a result of being unable to find other work. 

But the practice is also linked to long-standing dissatisfaction of local communities with the international oil companies that are extracting natural resources for profit, without then investing back into the communities that are suffering the consequences. 

As one unnamed person, who runs two illegal refineries told the BBC: "We have seen so much injustice. What is going to the local community? Nothing! Zero!"

What Does This Mean for Climate Change and the Need to Cut Out Fossil Fuels? 

Illegal refinery activities significantly impact nature, plant regeneration, loss of natural wildlife habitats, disruption of water cycles, and loss of medicinal plant species.

Whether legally or illegally, oil refining still remains a very dangerous process because the extracts are highly flammable. Within minutes of a trigger, the fire can cause unprecedented damage to the environment, properties, and loss of human life.

Aside from the environmental risk involved in these practices, it also affects the health and well-being of people in surrounding areas. The generated air pollutants — such as soot (which has been an ongoing problem in Nigerian cities like Port Harcourt) and smog  — can heighten the risk of death from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory illness among those exposed.

With Nigeria so heavily dependent on the use of fossil fuels, particularly crude oil, it may seem that phasing it out is impossible. However, transition to a clean, healthy, renewable energy economy is achievable and we must call on Nigerian leaders to take urgent action towards it. 

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari described last week's explosion as a "catastrophe" and a "national disaster", and pledged to further crack down on illegal refineries. But the fact that poverty and unemployment is such a significant driver of illegal refining, pushing people into the dangerous work, also highlights the need for wealthy countries to contribute funding to support lower-income nations in moving away from fossil fuels in a way that's just and fair for people who rely on the fossil fuel industry for their livelihood. 

The world's wealthist countries actually committed back in 2009 to contribute $100 billion a year every year from 2020 to 2025, to support vulnerable countries in adapting to, and mitigating the impacts of, climate change. That promise has yet to be met and, according to an announcement in October last year, likely won't be met until 2023. 

Decisive climate action, collectively and individually, and working to undo the systemic cause of extreme poverty (which can drive people into illegal activities like oil bunkering) is key to creating a future in which people in vulnerable oil-rich communities are able to live better lives.

You can join the movement of Global Citizens around the world calling on world and businesses leaders to take urgent climate action now. Take action with us here

Global Citizen Explains

Defend the Planet

Nigeria’s Illegal Oil Refineries: What to Know About How They’re Harming People & Planet

By Gideon Fakomogbon