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The politics of energy and the way forward for Nigeria – Bart Nnaji

Excerpts of 35-point Inaugural Dele Momodu Annual Lecture delivered on Thursday, May 16 in Lagos by Professor Bart Nnaji, Founder and Chairman, Geometric Power Group.

The modern global economy runs on energy. Contemporary geopolitics are shaped by energy. For instance, it is wondered whether the United States of America would have risked the lives of thousands of its troops and spent so much financial resource on rescuing Kuwait from the vice grip of the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein if the little desert nation with a sparse population had not been full of petroleum. This speculation is important because when Saddam Hussein moved into Kuwait on 8 August 1989 and occupied it which caused pandemonium throughout the globe, Liberia was about to start a descent into anarchy.

Liberia is not just another country; it was an American colony created for freed African slaves. Its capital, Monrovia, is named for the fifth American president, James Monroe (1817-1825), widely remembered for the Monroe Doctrine that the American Hemisphere should be treated as the American backyard; the doctrine precludes outsiders from meddling in affairs around the United States. Yet, Washington ignored the chaos and anarchy in Liberia that started on December 24, 1989, when Charles Taylor led his National Patriotic Front of Liberia to launch a war from the Nimba County that shares border with Ivory Coast. Nigeria was compelled, as the Giant of Africa, to not only move its troops—army, navy, and air force—into Liberia but also spend a fortune on the country under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). I understand that at the end of the war, Nigeria lost about 1,000 officers and soldiers, that is, a whole battalion, and also spent some eight billion dollars on the ECOMOG operations.

Now, let us move away from events of the 1990s and the wars. Let us reflect on international events of the last couple of years, concerning energy. The West, particularly Western Europe, has been mounting a relentless campaign for cleaner energy. It wants the world to embrace solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy like hydropower. It has been asking mostly developing nations to abandon coal in particular, referring to it as the greatest environmental pollutant through carbon emission. It has even added natural gas to the list of fuels that should be banned to make the world limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade by 2030, as required by the Paris Accord on Climate Change of 2015.

Self-Interest Looms Large

Something dramatic was to happen in 2022. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European nations imposed a series of sanctions on Russia; Moscow, in return, took punitive actions against the West. Western countries like Germany which depended largely on gas imports from Russia began to feel the pinch. Germany, the largest European economy, decided to revive coal-fired plants that it had resolved, under Angela Merkel, to close down. Though there were no imminent threats of power shortages in Germany, Berlin chose to reverse its policy on coal plants rather than risk in any way the chance of its people suffering any form of electricity crisis.

Germany was not alone. The United Kingdom, which had prided itself on shutting down its coal-fired power plants and on building large windfarms, decided to resuscitate its coal plants. Why? It didn’t want its citizens to suffer the 2022 heatwave unduly.

A similar scenario emerged in France the same year. Faced with winter which could hurt its people, Paris chose to extend the lifespans of its coal-fired plants. Though electricity from coal was responsible for only 0.6% of national electricity production, the French government had to extend the lifespans of coal-fired plants just to protect its people. This is the country where 196 states, including Vatican City, signed the famous Paris Accord on Climate Change under the United Nations auspices!

The United States is proud that several of its coal-fired plants have been decommissioned. Coal used to account for 50% of America’s electricity, but the figure has now reduced to about 17.8% and it is expected that it may decline to 4% by 2030. Environmentalists are delighted at the rapid decline. But it would appear that the decline has not been driven by as much commitment to environmental protection as by economics, even though the Joe Biden administration has a special envoy on climate change. It is easier and cheaper to run a natural gas-fired plant than a coal-fired one, thanks to enhanced shale gas production and other issues. In fact, fossil fuels make up 60% of the total fuel to power since gas contributes more than 42% of fuel to power in America.

The Donald Trump administration used to celebrate the ubiquity of coal all over the United States; its affordability; the convenience of its storage and use; the ease of its transportation; its generous use by steel, aluminium, and cement manufacturers; its extensive use by railway firms; the millions of American workers who depended on it; its host communities; several American businesses that relied on it directly and indirectly; and its key role in America’s industrial history.

There is something that we should know from the Americans as they deactivate their coal plants: a great concern for the common good. The United States Department of Energy has been looking for ways to fill the gap created by the declining coal plants. It thinks that converting the coal plants to nuclear plants will result in additional $275m annually in economic activities in the host community. It wants the affected coal plants replaced by nuclear power plants. This is to ensure that the electricity workers retain their jobs, and the host communities remain economically active. There is the argument that re-purposing the plants from coal-fired to nuclear will reduce the cost of building brand new stations by 35%. A nuclear plant requires a fraction of the fuel needed by, say, a coal plant to produce the same amount of power. But its waste water is dangerous and the primary raw material used for nuclear energy is uranium, which is mined and, therefore, constitutes environmental degradation.

Of course, it is not only nations that have displayed self-interests in the dialogue over fossil fuels. Take the case of five Superstar oil and gas companies, Shell, Exxon Mobil, Total-Energies, Chevron, and British Petroleum. Well, Exxon-Mobil and Chevron did not claim to be as committed to cleaner energy as their European counterparts. Shell, under Ben van Beurden’s leadership, tried to sell itself as a leader in the vanguard of the campaign for clean energy and paid a price for it. While it was posting huge profits, its stock performance on the exchanges was flat, unlike those of Chevron and ExxonMobil. Investors were not sure whether Shell was an oil and gas firm or one dealing in renewables.

All this changed with the assumption of office of Wael Sawan, the Lebanese-Canadian, as its chief executive in January 2023. Sawan has left no one in doubt that his loyalty in not to environmentalists but to shareholders. Shell has resumed heavy investments in oil and gas. It has reduced its climate ambitions by scaling down its goal of reducing the net carbon intensity of its energy products from 20% to 15 % by 2030. Its investments in renewables came down from $3.5 billion in 2022 to $2.7 billion in 2023.

Shell is not alone. The other British superpower petroleum company, BP, has taken similar steps. Its investments in low-carbon energy are seven times less than its investments in fossil fuels while those of Shell are five times lower. TotalEnergies of France in April of 2023 announced a reduction of its climate ambitions from 35%-40% in emissions in 2030 to 20%-30% the same period.

The Shell CEO has an interesting explanation for the new ongoing huge investments in oil and gas by the petroleum majors: the world needs energy security. I believe he really meant the Western nations.

Overlooked Facts

Renewable energy has been marketed as the silver bullet to climate change. Many are, therefore, under the impression that there are no environmental issues with electric vehicles, solar panels, solar batteries, windfarms, dams, etc. They are in error. Electric cars, for instance, are expensive. Tesla vehicle prices range from $40,240 to $47,240, though Elon Musk, rattled by cheaper EVs from China like those from BYD, is working on producing more affordable models. What is more, there are not enough Supercharger networks in the United States. To worsen matters, other electric cars could not recharge at Tesla’s facilities until recently.

Solar panels and batteries do not charge at night. This adds to the deficit of high costs, especially in poor nations. However, these deficiencies are hardly mentioned in the mainstream Western media. It is like a windfarm that works only when there is considerable wind, but this inadequacy is scarcely discussed.

A critical raw material used in the production of solar panels and batteries is lithium-ion. It is a mineral like coal or crude oil. It is mined. The process of extracting it is environmentally hazardous. But no-one talks about it.

In Chile where it is produced more than in any other country, nearby rivers have been polluted. Protests by the citizens against pollution have been met by brute force by security agents, violating the rights and dignity of the people. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where cobalt, copper, and lithium-ion are produced massively, there are human rights abuses on an industrial scale. There is also child labour, in addition to other forms of labour exploitation. The beneficiaries are mostly Western multinationals.

The DRC Government towards the end of April 2024, hired the services of a team of French lawyers to write to Apple Corporation, the American technology giant, accusing it of benefitting from illegal actions in the eastern part of the country where lithium-ion, and copper used in the manufacture of electronic gadgets like smart phones and solar panels as well as batteries are mined. Rebels are active in this part of the DRC.

In New York State where the government plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 and by 85% by 2050 from the 1990 levels through solar and wind power, there have been protests against the conversion of farmlands to solar and wind farms. There have also been protests against the destruction of biodiversity and the habitat generally.

Conference of Parties (COP) 28

The most difficult and controversial issue deliberated on at the Conference of Parties, better known as COP 28, which was held in Dubai from 30 November to 13 December 2023, was the fate of fossil fuels. At the end of the deliberations, participants agreed on a shift that would “happen in a just, orderly, and equitable manner”. No date or timeline was given, but it was provided that developing economies, particularly those that depend on fossil fuels, be assisted. In doing so, the level of development and poverty of each country would be taken into consideration.

Much as the agreement and wording of the resolutions are considered a win-win for those who wanted an immediate ban on fossil fuels and those opposed to the idea completely, it is often wondered whether the participants could have taken a realistically different position. The world needs environmental protection, but the world just cannot do without fossil fuels at this point. As experience has demonstrated in the last two years, European nations that have been in the forefront for clean energy found themselves returning to coal-fired plants when their interests were threatened in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

The United States relies on fossil fuels substantially. China, India, Japan, Russia, and others still rely on traditional fuels. Only a handful of nations like Greece, Spain, and Portugal have crossed the clean energy line. At the G-7 meeting of ministers responsible for the environment, climate, and energy held in Turin, Italy, on April 30, 2024, it was agreed that coal plants would be phased out among these nations by 2035, but the participants were realistic enough to provide that those which could not meet the target should be allowed to continue to use coal-fired plants on condition that it would not compromise their commitment to bring down global warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade by 2030.

It is unlikely that Japan can afford to stop using coal by 2035. Germany has set a 2030 deadline, but there is no guarantee it will make it. The G-7 member nations that campaigned for the phasing out of coal plants by 2035 are those which have already abandoned coal plants or use them minimally. In other words, what the world saw at the recent G-7 ministers meeting in Italy is self-interest everywhere and becoming the “big elephant in the room” This fact should not be lost on the Nigerian people and their government.

Home Energy Politics

The primary responsibility of every government is to its people, their welfare, and their security. This point is worth reiterating because Nigeria seems to pay more attention to gas exports than the domestic gas market because of the prospects of huge foreign exchange earnings, which the country needs desperately. Gas producers naturally prefer to export their products because their domestic prices are regulated, subsidized, and sold below the world market value. Besides, those who supply gas to (privatized) power-generating firms are typically owed huge amounts for long periods.

The Trans Sahara Gas Pipeline is being constructed with a pipeline measuring 46-56 inches in diameter so that it can carry 30 billion cubic metres of natural gas from Nigeria to Europe through North Africa. One or two cynics have wondered in recent times how sustainable the project may be in the long run. This is because Europeans have been at the forefront of the campaign against all forms of fossil fuels, including natural gas. Will they still purchase Nigeria’s natural gas if they should find adequate alternatives?

As Nigeria plans to embark on massive export of its natural gas, the country is facing severe gas shortages at home. When the General Sani Abacha military regime intervened in Sierra Leone in the 1990s under the ECOWAS rubric to flush out the new military regime and restore democratic rule there, Nigeria was described by a section of the international community as a country that was exporting what it did not have, democracy, but importing what it ought to have in abundance, namely, petroleum products. This description may well fit the gas sector today. Nigeria has 206.53 trillion cubic feet of untapped gas reserves; the estimated recoverable gas is 139.4 TCF. It is one of the world’s leading gas countries.

Yet, there is not enough natural gas or even liquefied petroleum gas used in the kitchen. Even the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas company, a major foreign exchange earner that also has a guaranteed market, has been operating at 60% capacity on account of insufficient gas supply.

The petroleum companies supplying gas to power-generating companies are in a tighter position. Because they are performing sub optimally, there are now longer periods of electricity blackouts throughout the country. This is despite the spirited efforts of the NNPCL, the Ministry of Power and the Presidency.

A state of emergency needs to be declared in the gas sector. The declaration will save the power sector and allow the government and other stakeholders to address fundamental issues in the gas sector in a robust manner. The issues will include how to strike a healthy balance between producing gas for export and gas for domestic consumption. Gas is equally needed in both markets.

Another critical area in Nigeria’s power sector is the transmission network. Having one national grid that is structured in the way ours is; for a nation of over 200 million cannot be defended. To make matters worse, the network is old, and fragile; and requires robustness. I advocate having multiple semi-autonomous grids connected to the national grid. When I was the Minister of Power, the Federal Executive Council approved a 765MW Super grid, however with my exit from the administration in 2012, the project ended abruptly. Such a grid would be important for the evacuation of power from power plants such as the Mambila hydropower plant in Taraba State under development, which has a capacity of more than 3000 MW. I sometimes imagine how electricity could have been developed in Nigeria if the Federal Government had continued with the project after I left public office. I am therefore delighted that the current Minister of Power, Chief Adebayo Adelabu, is reviving it. We need to support him.

The development of the electric power sector has been stalled for years because of the suspension of Partial Risk Guarantee (PRG) to support power purchase agreements (PPAs). I was instrumental, as the Minister of Power, to development of the PRG for the PPA which enabled the emergence of the 461MW Azure-Edo Power Plant in Edo State. With the partial risk guarantee (PRG), a private firm can have the comfort of building a power plant knowing that an institution like the World Bank is providing such instrument to shore-up the payment of the distribution companies. I understand the financial implications to the country IF it fails to meet its obligations to the GenCo, however these concerns should be addressed in the terms and conditions of the legal contract/Agreement, rather than halt the progress of the electricity generation sector totally. As things are now, no private sector investor will be attracted to invest in the electricity sector in Nigeria despite the enormous potential the market has. The key driver to unlock the power sector for investors is availability of credible and creditworthy off takers. We need innovative solutions that would provide the requisite comfort for potential investors and financiers in Nigeria’s power sector.

Conclusion

I have in this lecture reviewed some major current developments in the energy industry in the international as well as local environments. It is self-evident that nations and commercial entities are guided principally by their interests, despite their strong pledges to fight the climate crisis with all their might and resources. Even environmentalists, who fiercely insist that poor nations shut down their fossil fuel plants to save the Earth, would take a patriotic stand when their countries’ interests are affected directly. For instance, Greenpeace Germany in August 2022 described Germany’s decision to restore coal-fired plants as “bitter but inevitable”.

Even in the unlikely event that rich nations wean themselves offAmerica fossil fuels within the foreseeable f ture, the Earth will continue to be polluted because most developing nations do not have the resources and technical know-how to transition yet to clean energy. Bangladesh, a nation of 170 million people, has been building new coal plants, and the beneficiaries are not just the local people and local businesses but also big Western firms like Walmart of the United States and Zara of Spain. Developed countries and multilateral institutions need to assist developing countries with technology, human capital development, infrastructure, and finance to grapple with the basic challenges of development. After all, the climate crisis was unleashed by rich nations. The poor nations are victims.

Countries like Nigeria have the responsibility to remind developed nations that much as natural gas is a fossil fuel, it is a transition fuel because of its relative cleanliness. Even lithium-ion promoted as the silver bullet to the climate crisis has serious defects, including the fact that it is mined like any other mineral and, ipso facto, causes environmental pollution.

While the Nigerian government should be encouraged to explore foreign markets for its resources like natural gas, sight should not be lost on the fact that charity should begin at home. In fact, an emergency has to be declared in the domestic gas market to save the electricity sector and address other key issues.

The Super grid should be given priority to boost the nation’s transmission capacity.

The Federal Government has to resume signing power purchase agreements (PPAs) with appropriate Guarantee instruments to attract private sector investment in the power sector so that Nigeria can experience proper economic trajectory like other emerging nations such as the BRIC nations: Brazil, Russia, India, and China or even the CIVETS: Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa.

We can achieve these if we can find the willpower and right frame of mind to change the energy equation like those BRIC and CIVETS countries. It is now up to us as a nation.

 

 

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