Staving Off Marine Pollution
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Staving Off Marine Pollution

Staving Off Marine Pollution

The discovery of oil in commercial quantities in Ghana has come not only with enormous economic benefits but also with challenges. One of these,  maritime pollution, has been a huge concern to environmentalists and governments all over the world. Francis L. Sackitey reports on how Ghana is putting into place legislation to protect its maritime environment.

On April 20, 2010, Deep Water Horizon, a Transocean deep-sea drilling rig working for British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico 48 miles from the coast of Louisiana, caught fire, burned fiercely for 36 hours and then sank in 5,000 feet of water. Eleven oil rig workers died and several others were severely injured. The flames from the fire rose 200-300 feet and were visible from a distance of 35 miles when the fire was its height in that disaster.

This accident, produced the largest oil slick in American history, perhaps the largest such disaster anywhere in the history of the oil industry. Oil leaked out at 200,000 gallons per day. The oil slick tripled in size in one day, from a spill the size of Rhode Island to one as big as Puerto Rico, according to images collected from mostly European satellites and analysed by the University of Miami. The environmental mess could be larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, when an oil tanker spilled 11m gallons off Alaska’s shores.

Hardly a day passes without hearing of oil spillages in Nigeria. Decades of oil production in Nigeria’s swampy Niger Delta, where Africa’s second-longest river empties into the Atlantic, have turned parts of it into a wasteland of oily water and dead mangroves. Thousands of barrels are spilled every year. In September this year, an oil spillage near an ExxonMobil oil field off the southeast coast of Nigeria spread along the shore for about 15 miles, which locals said killed fishes they depend on to live.

A landmark UN report in August last year slammed the Nigerian government and multinational oil companies, particularly Shell, for 50 years of oil pollution that has devastated the Ogoniland region. Often some of these oil companies are left to go scot-free. Those who gather the courage to sue them very often lose their cases because of the absence of proper environmental and maritime laws to protect the environment and the people. Recently the BBC reported that the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell has rejected claims by four Nigerian farmers that it should pay compensation for damage to their land.

That is why the effort by the government of Ghana to enact laws which will protect Ghana’s maritime domain is welcome news. Ghana’s Minister for Environment, Science and Technology, Sherry Ayittey, has been assuring Ghanaians and the international community of her ministry’s commitment to protect Ghana’s maritime domain from environmental pollution and degradation.

According to Ayittey, a Marine Pollution Act, 2011 has been referred to the Parliamentary committee on Mines and Energy. This Act, she said, seeks to repeal the Oil in Navigable Waters Act of 1996, (Act 235) that had since become obsolete and inadequate to provide the appropriate regulatory framework required.

The new Act has 238 clauses arranged under five chapters dealing with the application and responsibilities of the maritime authorities, an International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund, liability for oil pollution and enforcement among others. The Minister, who is confident that the bill will be passed by parliament before the end of 2012, said, “Once the bill is approved and signed by the President of the Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies will ensure the effective and efficient implementation of the law to protect the country’s environment.”

Ghana had signed and ratified various conventions relating to the protection of the marine environment and, according to the Minister, the conventions could only be meaningful if they were incorporated in the country’s domestic laws. The memorandum and the conventions that have been ratified by Ghana and have been incorporated into the bill include: the International Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Ships, the 1996 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Matter (London Dumping Convention)1971, the International Convention Relating to Intervention on High seas in case of Oil Pollution Casualties, Oil Pollution Preparedness Response and Cooperation Convention (OPRC), the 1992 Civil Liability Convention (CLC) and the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund 1992.

A memorandum which accompanies the Act holds that all vessels within the scope of the Bill must carry on board valid international certificates that may be accepted at foreign ports as prima facie evidence that the ship complies with the requirements of the conventions. The memorandum also adds other treats, like washing of chemicals from the hold of ships into the sea and that ships also provided a constant threat of oil spillage.

The Minister said that the way to ensure accountable environmental governance was to train and include Ghanaians in all aspects of the onshore and offshore operations. This move is crucially looking at the oil- and mineral-related conflicts in countries like Nigeria and South Africa.

Another measure the Ministry for Environment, Science and Technology is putting in place to safeguard the environment is to provide the GMA with a new boat equipped with a laboratory, monitoring system and other maritime security gadgets to ensure environmental protection.

For now, as the Bill awaits parliamentary approval, the oil companies will have to adhere to international conventions in their operations. The good news however is that so far, there’s a good rapport and cooperation between the Ghana Maritime Authority, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology.

The feeling is that Ghana has started well in trying to manage its oil industry and all the related challenges that go with it owing to the myriad of examples that surround it.

The world now waits to see how these developments will evolve.

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Written by African Business Magazine

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