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Opinions of Saturday, 18 December 2010

Columnist: Asamoah, Joe

The Emerging Natural Gas Industry in Ghana

The Emerging Natural Gas Industry in Ghana: Environment, Safety and Health Issues

Despite the relative beneficial attributes of natural gas over coal and oil, it has its own adverse characteristics. Considering the quest for Ghana to develop a natural gas industry with the associated gas from the Jubilee field, it is pertinent to put in place what is necessary to make the industry sustainable. There is the need to ensure proper environmental stewardship in the relevant facilities and systems of the industry including upstream and downstream processes like gas winning, purification, storage, piping, distribution, reticulation and end-use. These processes must be grounded on sound environmental management principles that do not compromise safety and health issues. Any lapses in terms of regulatory oversight, particularly, on issues pertaining to safety, health and environment may lead to adverse and traumatic consequences.

Environmental Tools

There are tools that could be applied to ensure that activities in the industry are carried out with fewer risks. The following environmental management tools and processes may be used in the industry:

• Strategic Environmental Assessment;
• Environmental Impact Assessment;
• Environmental Auditing;
• Life-cycle Analysis; and
• Environmental Performance Evaluation (Environmental Reporting).

To avoid merely symptomatic treatment of environmental problems, the principles of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) should be applied in the policy and planning stages of the industry. Environmental Impact Assessment is a prerequisite for developmental projects in Ghana, and requires the consent of the public and final approval by the EPA. The disadvantages of Environmental Impact Assessment are that it is undertaken late in the planning stage of a project, is often mired in controversy between environmentalists and project owners; and may in some cases be compromised by political interference, making the final decision biased. In situations where SEA is properly applied, only limited Environmental Impact Assessment may be necessary and thus avoid controversy. Although SEA is not a statutory requirement in Ghana, it is gradually gaining popularity and likely to be regarded as a prerequisite for future developmental planning processes, particularly at the policy, plan and programme levels. The advantage of SEA over the Environmental Impact Assessment is that it allows an assessment of the influence of a project on the environment at all levels of the initial strategic decision-making processes.

An Environmental Management System (EMS), which consists of a continual cycle of policy making, planning, implementation, reviewing and improvement is necessary at all the facilities and systems of the natural gas industry. There are numerous examples of why EMS is needed. For example, it is possible that leakages would occur along the “right-of-way” (the access ‘road’ created for the construction of the pipelines) to the point of use during the piping of natural gas over long distances, like in the case of the Temane-Secunda pipeline, which transmits natural gas from Mozambique to South Africa. However, since natural gas is much lighter than air, leaked gases are quickly dispersed, posing virtually no danger. When a gas pipeline breaks, gas quickly spreads in the dirt and forms a volatile cloud in the air. Subsequently, a random spark — a tailpipe scrape or a flick of a cigarette lighter — can cause a fire outbreak, leading to disastrous consequences. The hazards associated with the pipelines and storage equipment apart from leakages include corrosion, explosion and poisoning requiring the enforcement of stringent safety regulations, which cover steel length, wall-thickness and testing schedules. Pigs (devices that are pushed through a pipe to examine it for corrosion and defects) are to be used for standard monitoring and testing procedures. In contemporary times, state-of-the-art robotic devices — smart pigs — are used to for the former procedures. Smart pigs are used to sweep through pipelines to collect information about cracks, dents, and, more importantly, where pipe walls are thinned by corrosion. In fact, the smart pig is the gold standard of inspection technology. Hydrotesting – the use of pressurised water under tightly controlled conditions – can be used for the same purpose. However, each one has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Unauthorised Third Party Access and Force Majeure
In general, many accidents that occur in the natural gas industry are caused by third parties operating near buried pipelines and by force majeure such as earthquakes or earth tremors. Because pipelines cover longer distances, there are many places where third-party interference and damage can occur. For instance, subsistence farmers trying to till the new “rights-of-way” while other people attempt to use this ‘road’ for vehicular access, posing hazards. Why would farmers attempt to do this? The “rights-of-way” is cleared of trees and bushes, and presents an inviting opportunity for the subsistence farmer to knowingly or unknowingly plant some quick maturing vegetables or crops. While patrolling all the pipelines on a daily basis would not be feasible, damage and accidents can be avoided if they were given periodic surveillance, including security fencing to ward off intruders. Although natural gas is the cleanest of all the fossil fuels, its combustion in poorly ventilated homes causes indoor air pollution that is harmful to human health. This may lead to acute respiratory infection which may burden our health care system. During combustion, natural gas emits a lot of particulate matter consisting of soot, carbon black and oily grime, which normally causes asthma and breathing difficulties in women and children. The burying of pipelines near densely populated areas need to be avoided, if possible. Whenever, disaster strikes, the fatalities, injuries and destruction are often massive. Thus, the law requiring the operators of high-¬pressure natural gas pipelines to inspect and assess all sections of their lines in densely populated area must be strictly enforced. If we are to ensure that there is no cosy relationship between the natural gas industry and regulators, there is the need to define the boundaries between them. The work of the natural gas regulator is very important and the nascent industry in Ghana cannot do without it.

Joe Asamoah, Ph.D; a Consultant in Oil and Gas, CDM and Environment may be reached at joasa2@yahoo.com