By George Onyejiuwa
Goodluck Nanah Opiah, former Speaker of the Imo State House of Assembly and now Special Adviser/Coordinator of Petroleum and Gas Matters to Governor Hope Uzodimma, of Imo State, has declared that no one can wish away the governor’s achievement in making sure that no part of Imo land is ceded to other states. This move, he said, has led to the recovery of some oil wells from some other states.
In an interview with journalists recently, Opiah, former member of the House of Representatives said, among other things, that oil companies operating within the state have been directed by the governor to develop their host communities.
For some time now, the Imo State Petroleum Development Company has been in the news. Could you update us on that?
The Imo Petroleum Development Company Ltd is a government-owned oil company incorporated in 1999 by the Udenwa administration, but it wasn’t made operational until Ikedi Ohakim came on board in 2007. He tried to use the company in partnership with the Oak Company from the US to float the Oak Refinery in the state. That process was aborted after Ohakim lost his re-election bid in 2011. So, the company has been there. But when Owelle Rochas Okorocha came on board, he did not deem it necessary to make use of the company until Senator Hope Uzodimma came on board last year. He dusted up the company and increased its share capital base to N500 million from N10 million it used to be. Governor Uzodimma made the company available for use when the NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) through the DPR (Department of Petroleum Resources) advertised marginal fields for Nigerian and other investors to apply. So, Imo State, through the Imo Petroleum Development Company, applied for the marginal fields and went through all the rigorous bidding processes, and came out successful. Today, Imo State is the owner of Ihioma marginal field here in Imo State. We have the final award letter from the DPR and we are ready to pay the final signature bonus which is about the last commitment on the part of the government before we can go into operation. So, Imo Petroleum Development Company is the property of the state and it is ready to go into full operations.
Oil-producing communities have had tenuous relationship with oil-producing companies. What is the situation now, especially with regards to writing new GMOU and the development of the oil producing communities?
The administration of Senator Hope Uzodimma has opened a new vista for the oil companies and the host communities. It is very unfortunate that oil-producing communities in Imo never had their fair share of development, either from the government or the oil producing companies until now. The mandate we have in the Petroleum and Gas Bureau from the governor is to ensure there is conducive environment for the oil companies to operate and that the oil companies in return should begin to develop the host communities where they operate. We have started with some communities where the oil companies were unable to even have a GMOU with the communities. We started with Sterling Global, an Indian company that started operating in the state about 2007 in three host communities in Umukpo Agwa, Umuofeke Agwa, and Mgbala Agwa, all in Oguta LGA. There had not been presence of the oil company in terms of community development in the host communities. What we did was to start developing new GMOU for the host communities and the oil company. The oil company is expanding to communities in Ohaji-Egbema such as Obiti and Ihie and we are taking them up one by one. The same thing applies to Seplat, Addax, and the rest of them.
This administration is poised to ensure that oil-producing communities are developed by the oil-producing companies because the hazards of oil exploration and exploitation is too high, and one way or the other they must try to cushion the effects of the hazards through development, in terms of employment for the teeming population of youths in the area and providing social amenities and other physical infrastructure. Government is quite determined to ensure that these things are achieved and at the same time the oil companies have harmonious relationship with the host communities to enable them operate without hindrance.
How is the Imo State government going to operate the Ihioma Marginal Oil Field that it recently acquired?
Definitely, we are going into partnerships with other operators. We are not going to do it alone. At the moment, we do not have all the technical know-how to go into oil production. It is obvious we are going to go into partnerships with other investors. But that is not to say that the government cannot operate the company on its own. Ordinarily, we would want to operate the company on our own to demonstrate that a government can operate an oil company and make profits for the people and change the narrative. The general belief is that government is not a good businessman, but with the capacity of a governor like Hope Uzodimma, Imo can run a successful business, especially in the oil-and-gas sector and come up with profits and other benefits for Imo people. But we have to go into partnership with other people to make the business more efficient and more profit-oriented.
There have been new investments in the oil-and-gas sector in the state since the coming of the Uzodimma administration. We have seen the refinery owned by Waltersmith and there is also a gas project in Ohaji-Egbema. What brought that about?
Well, like I said, every government has its own wisdom, or lack of it. Uzodimma’s Government came on board with a lot of capacity in terms of experience from both the private and public sectors. He was a key player in the oil-and-gas sector even before he ventured into politics. He has brought his experience in the private and public sectors to bear in the running of the affairs of Imo State. The private refinery owned by Waltersmith didn’t come by chance but by the complete support and active government’s involvement in terms of creating the enabling environment and community/oil company peaceful relations. The refinery remains an uncommon initiative. It is uncommon because the idea behind the refinery is to reduce the losses the oil company usually incurred through illegal bunkering activities by hoodlums along the production line from point of production to point of sale at Bonny Terminal.
The idea is to produce the crude oil and refine it here rather than selling the crude oil. Right now the company is in need of more crude oil to refine because they are expanding their capacity. In a nutshell, that refinery has clear support of the government to ensure its take-off, and it is already operational. Apart from the refinery project by Waltersmith, other oil companies are thinking out-of-the-box now. Waltersmith is already planning to go into partnership with other oil companies to install more oil refineries in Imo. Imo has become a major basin for economic development, especially in the oil and gas sector. The infrastructure development of Imo, particularly in Ohaji-Egbema LGA, is also going to be beefed up. Right now the point between the refinery and Port-Harcourt/Owerri Express Road is being planned for dualisation to cater for the increased traffic, especially trucks that would lift oil from Awara/Obile, where the refinery is located, to Umuapu and to Port-Harcourt or wherever they want to. There is so much going on, in addition to the gas exploration that is about to begin, there is the Assa Gas Plant, the biggest gas find in the West African sub-region. Seplat, Shell, and the NNPC are in partnership to develop the infrastructure and between now and next year, the gas exploration activity will be in full gear. Government has the intention of ensuring that Imo State gets her fair share in the development. We are proposing an industrial cluster around Ohaji-Egbema LGA where investors would set up oil and gas-related industries. This no doubt will lead to increased industrial activities in Imo State. The government is really working hand-in-love with the oil companies and now fully involved in the oil and gas sector. I am hopeful that Imo will be better for it.
Talking about illegal bunkering, last year a community in Ohaji-Egbema had a serious problem with one oil company when a security man escorting the crude oil allegedly shot one of the natives…
There was a development between Sterling Global and one community in Ohaji-Egbema last year. Sterling Global does not have oil pipeline at the moment and so they do not transport their crude through the pipeline from the point of production to somewhere around the Ndoni area to the bank of River Niger from where they ship their crude to wherever. It was in the process of that trucking – the trucks are in good number, between 20 and 30 a day – and they move in a convoy, escorted by armed policemen or soldiers – that the problem ensued. From time to time they have had issues with the natives along the area they pass, resulting in loss of lives. We have handled the cases to the satisfaction of the oil-producing companies and the communities involved. But that is not the type of illegal bunkering we are talking about. You cannot call it illegal bunkering. We are not in support of trucking because it has a lot of negative impacts on the environment. It is an unfriendly form of transporting crude. It is obsolete and not acceptable to us. We have encouraged Sterling Global to, as a matter of urgency, develop its own pipeline so that they can transport their crude oil through the pipeline and reduce the negative impacts, including the destruction of our roads.
On the other hand, there is a high level of illegal bunkering activity going on in the Niger Delta region generally. We are in liaison with the oil companies battling the illegal bunkering activities. There are illegal refineries going on everywhere and it is not in our interest as government to allow that kind of activity because it has negative impact on the production level of the state. Our 13 per cent derivation fund depends on the quantity of crude oil we produce. If we allow illegal oil bunkerers to reduce our production level it would diminish our resources coming from the Federation Account. And so we have in place an anti-bunkering committee set up in the communities where the illegal bunkering activities take place. It has not been an easy war. The people engaging in oil bunkering are criminals and some of them are deadly. But with the help of the army and the police, we have carried on with the war. A lot of the illegal refineries established by the illegal oil bunkerers have been destroyed. But the problem is that as you destroy one illegal refinery, another one is being set up elsewhere. By and large, it is going to be controlled. Arrests are made and some people are being prosecuted from time to time. We will do anything legally possible to bring that illegal business to an end. We intend to embark on a sensitisation programme in the oil-producing communities.
Can you give us an update on the recent boundary adjustment exercise embarked upon by the Office of the Surveyor General and the National Boundary Commission between Imo and Rivers?
One of the problems we have had in Imo had been the state being short-changed by neighbouring states in terms of our oil wells being credited to them. The past administrations didn’t have the will and capacity to combat that situation until Senator Uzodimma came on board in January 2020. From the beginning, he took up the challenge to recover all our oil wells that were ceded to neighbouring states, especially Rivers. He wrote to the National Boundary Commission (NBC) and the Office of the Surveyor-General of the Federation. Meetings were held between Imo State, Rivers State, Office of the Surveyor-General and the National Boundary Commission in Abuja and agreement was reached for the Commission to conduct physical definition and demarcation of the boundaries between Imo and Rivers.
That exercise lasted for about four months, from November 2020 to February 2021. The boundaries between Imo and Rivers have been properly defined and cuts across a distance of about 123 kilometres, running from Oguta LGA, in the area an oil company designated as Akri, to Ohaji-Egbema to Owerri West and Ngor-Okpala. These are the four local government areas that share boundaries with Rivers State. I can say with near-sense of certainty that the boundary adjustment would have succeeded in giving back to Imo the oil wells that hitherto were ceded to Rivers State.
This is a sure source of increased revenue for the state. I congratulate His Excellency Senator Hope Uzodimma for all his bold steps. I thank God for giving him the will and sagacity to push for things like this. In a nutshell, the boundary adjustment programme has been completed and the National Boundary Commission and the Office of the Surveyor-General of the Federation have submitted their reports and they are being analysed with a view to ensuring that the wrongs are righted.