Environmental activists in Nigeria are raising alarms after the military this week burned a ship with more than 800,000 liters of stolen crude oil.
Nigerian officials said the ship was caught smuggling the oil to Cameroon and was destroyed to set an example for would-be criminals. But critics pointed out the damage to the environment and questioned the circumstances of the ship's interception by a controversial security outfit run by a former militant leader.
Nigeria's National Petroleum Company Ltd., or NNPC, said the oil had been stolen from a well in southwest Ondo state and that the vessel had operated undetected for up to 12 years.
Officials said the vessel had no documentation to justify the cargo it was carrying.
The discovery was the latest in a flurry of oil busts by NNPC-contractor Tantita Security Services, a company run by Government Ekpemupolo, also known as Tompolo.
A military helicopter operated by the Nigerian military’s joint task force Operation Delta Safe on Tuesday bombarded the vessel, dumping its content into the water.
Environmentalists said authorities need to find ways of handling looted oil that do not harm nature.
Olumide Idowu, executive director of the International Climate Change Development Initiative, a Nigerian NGO, said the burning of the vessel "is actually jeopardizing the source of drinking water and agricultural irrigation, and this contamination can also affect our aquatic ecosystem and disrupt the balance of plants and animals in our population."
Nigerian authorities have been struggling to stem oil theft from pipelines and wells in the Niger Delta region for decades.
The trend is a major issue for new President Bola Tinubu, who has been making drastic economic changes in a bid to improve the country's economy, including ending expensive fuel subsidies.
In April, the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a government effort to increase transparency and accountability and reduce corruption in resource management, said the country had lost about $46 billion to oil theft in twelve years.
Saint Mienpamo, a field operator with a local security service in the region, said the strict measures applied by authorities are a necessary sacrifice to address a bigger problem.
"Now, if you drive through the creeks of the Niger Delta, even those hot bunkering spots, you will not find anybody there," Mienpamo said. "At least 85 percent success has been recorded so far.”
However, Emmanuel Afimia, owner of oil and gas consulting firm Enermics Consulting, said destruction of the vessel could make prosecution of offenders more challenging.
"This vessel has been parading the Nigerian waters and stealing crude oil for, like, 12 years," he said. "You need to ask: What quantity have they stolen so far and what's the monetary value of that? A lot of questions need to be asked, but then, now that the vessel has been burned, how are we able to prosecute this set of people?"
Nigeria's government made a deal in August 2022 with Tantita and said months of an intense crackdown on oil thieves have significantly reduced oil theft in the Niger Delta.
In October, security operatives were criticized for burning another vessel carrying stolen oil.