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2015-03-24 20:15:00



Oil is so cheap these days that for people around here, it isn't even worth stealing anymore.

Just months ago, villagers regularly took hacksaws to pipelines, transforming their homeland of rivulets winding through bayou forests into a calamity for global oil giants and environmentalists.

Hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude spurted daily into buckets, jerrycans and drums that were loaded into canoes. Some got cooked in makeshift refineries fashioned from metal cylinders built along riverbanks.

But now, with prices low, the risk of getting busted by Nigeria's navy now outweighs the get-rich rewards of sabotaging pipelines, stealing oil and smuggling vast quantities of it onto international markets. Indeed, some of these thieves have reverted to plunking fish traps in the waters they helped pollute.

"We're just doing this to occupy ourselves," said Emanuel Ubo, an oil smuggler washing out an emptied crude barrel in the creek. Nearby, an old fisherman tossed a net across water stained black.

Pipeline theft in Nigeria long ranked among the petroleum industry's most difficult problems—an invisible tax priced into the global cost of oil. Major oil companies shut pipelines. Royal Dutch Shell PLC has sold off at least $2.4 billion of oil properties in Nigeria since 2010.

Meanwhile, environmentalists watched the constant spills add up. One United Nations report in 2011 reckoned it would take 30 years clean this expanse of coastal wetlands. There have been countless more spills since then.

Until recently, government bookkeepers could only guess how many hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil were taken each day. Now, officials in the presidency say it is less than 50,000 of the two million Nigeria produces daily.

The fiscal health of Africa's top economy hinges on whether Nigeria can keep theft levels low. The government earns 70% of its income from crude. It needs every drop so it can afford to rise up from poverty and conflict.

On Saturday, President Goodluck Jonathan will face re-election in what has shaped up to be a tight race. He is watching his oil-powered economy sputter as the vote approaches. The country's currency has weakened 20% in the past two months. And his ill-equipped army is also fighting a six-year war with the Islamist insurgency Boko Haram, hundreds of miles north of here. Most recently, Boko Haram militants have kidnapped more than 400 women and children from the northern town of Damasak that was freed this month by troops from Niger and Chad, residents said on Tuesday.

"This is the moment to tackle oil theft," said Joseph Croft, executive director at the Stakeholder Democracy Network, a Niger Delta advocacy group.

The relative state of security for Nigeria's oil pipelines comes after years of government efforts. Under a 2009 amnesty program, the government tried paying those who at least publicly renounced the oil-theft business to guard pipelines—only to see oil theft keep rising.

It also bought Israeli drones meant to survey pipelines but ended up without spare parts, cameras or engines. A German-manufactured frigate for sea patrols is also out of order.

And yet the U.S. has seen promise in Nigeria's navy.

For years, the U.S. military has trained more than 200 Nigerian naval commandos, and installed coastal radars to track ships. The U.S. Coast Guard even gave Nigeria a pair of ships.

Now, oil thefts have become manageable enough to revive some of the business from major oil companies. Shell reopened a pipeline in February. Others are holding off: The fact that only a few thousand barrels of oil are stolen a day from them isn't much incentive, given the low margins.

Kola Karim, chief executive of Nigeria's Shoreline Natural Resources Ltd., said about 15% of his oil "just vanishes." He adds: "The price is at the pits of hell so even a drop of your oil stolen, you feel it."

Some worry theft will increase as soon as oil prices do. Villagers like James Ebemede, father of 15 children, don't see alternative ways to provide for their families.

"You don't retire from this work," he said, his rubber boots sinking into the oil-stained mud where he unloads barrels from canoes.

Still, the 55-year-old smuggler and distiller of crude oil had just laid off eight of his 10 employees. He alleges the navy burned down his refinery about a week earlier, before killing a 30-year-old neighbor in a raid. He has rebuilt the refinery amid the ashes.

A spokesman for Nigeria's navy, Commodore Aliyu Kabir, declined to comment. He also said the navy "has zero tolerance for corruption."

One recent Sunday, almost all the rogue refineries along a stretch of swamp were abandoned, many of them burned down.

Weeds had begun to creep up from the marsh and overtake a few.

A pair of naval officers stood on the deck of a command boat to greet a passing journalist.

"Something for me?" one sailor asked, with his hand out.

Just around a riverbend, a handful of villagers along a creek were rushing to refine the day's batch of stolen oil into diesel. They had heard the navy would come at 4 p.m.

"The ones that come in the afternoon take your money," said Anna Gafugha, her clothes stained from her work. "The ones that come at night take your oil and your money."




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