Residents of the oil- and gas-rich Niger Delta are preparing for a long legal battle with petroleum companies over the practice of gas flaring, considered by regional advocates to be environmentally damaging.
"There are presently bills before both the Senate and the House of Representatives that seek to enforce proposed fines and effectively ban routine gas flaring in Nigeria," said Gaia Sprocati, coordinator of Nigeria's Stakeholder Democracy Network, a civil society organization based in the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt.
Gas flaring is caused by the burning off of surplus combustive vapors during the natural gas extraction process. While petroleum firms say it is a necessary precaution to release excess pressure during the extraction process, it is considered by others to be a waste of the natural resource and a potential hazard to the environment.
The issue has provoked ire from local rights groups and foreign petroleum companies alike, as the government deadline for ending the practice is set for the end of this month.
Foreign oil firms in Nigeria have lobbied for the government to relax regulations regarding gas flaring, while Nigerian rights organizations petition the government to make foreign firms accountable for their flaring.
"Since gas flaring contributes to global warming and the climate change crisis, it is of concern to citizens around the world. As fellow human beings, we also demand the end to the suffering of the Niger Delta people whose lives, health and livelihoods are harmed for the benefit of greedy multinational corporations," read a petition that a local human rights and environmental group sent to the Nigerian government in February.
Royal Dutch Shell -- the largest foreign firm operating in Nigeria -- and other companies operating in the oil- and gas-rich Niger Delta claim, however, that they cannot comply with protocols calling for an end to the practice by the end of the year because of the continuing violence in the region, which they say prevents them from installing the required infrastructure to curtail flaring.
Militant groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta have been waging a steady campaign of attacks aimed at foreign oil interests and Nigerian forces in the delta for more than two years. In 2007 alone, more than 200 people were kidnapped and several Nigerian police and soldiers were killed.
Since the 1970s, Nigeria, Africa's No. 1 oil producer, has pumped more than $300 billion worth of crude from the southern delta states, according to estimates. But high unemployment in the delta, environmental degradation due to oil and gas extraction, and a lack of basic resources such as fresh water and electricity have angered some of the region's youth and incited them to take up arms.
Nigeria's petroleum industry also has been the focus of intense criticism from leaders as of late. Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, who hails from the delta, said last week that his country's oil wealth has been an economic curse over the last 50 years.
"The overdependence on oil has put an unpleasant bracket in our national economic freedom," Jonathan said.
About 95 percent of Nigeria's revenue is generated by oil and gas, resulting in billions of dollars in state funds every year, though much of the country remains impoverished and underdeveloped.
Meanwhile, one foreign energy firm hoping to make inroads into the Nigerian oil and gas sector has offered the government an undisclosed amount of money and promises of development for the Niger Delta in return for resource rights in the country.
At the beginning of the year Russia's Gazprom proposed a project for capturing the large quantities of gas burned off during oil and gas production, an offer that could prove particularly enticing to President Umaru Yar'Adua, who has been an outspoken proponent of ending the wasteful practice.