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Gas flaring from oil fields in Iraq spreading leukaemia like flu

Oil pollution in Iraq; Ali Hussein Jaloud, a young Iraqi resident who lives near one of BP's largest oil fields, had planned

By groundreportdesk
New Update
Gas flaring in Iraq: Dirty secret of big oil

Ali Hussein Jaloud, a young Iraqi resident who lives near one of BP's largest oil fields, had planned to confront the chief executive at the company's annual shareholder meeting regarding the continued release of cancer-causing pollutants in his community.

Unfortunately, Ali passed away from a type of leukemia associated with chemicals released from burning fossil fuels, just days before the meeting. His father, grieving the loss of his son, intends to ask BP why they didn't use his significant earnings to help save Ali's life.

Under Poisoned Skies

BBC News Arab journalists and researchers Owen Pinnell and I had the opportunity to meet Ali over a two-year period while creating a documentary titled 'Under Poisoned Skies'.

BBC investigation revealed the fatal consequences of gas flaring in southern Iraq, particularly at BP's Rumaila oil field, where Ali resided surrounded by checkpoints monitored by the oil company. In addition, BBC found that Rumaila had the largest volume of gas flaring of any oil field in the world.

Ali Hussein Jaloud was a resident of Rumaila, where burnings took place within a 2 km radius of his family's home, in violation of Iraqi law that requires a minimum distance of 10 km from residential areas. Ali's doctor told the BBC that the proximity to the burn was probably the cause of his leukaemia. A leaked report revealed that in just five years, the incidence of cancer in the region south of Basra had risen by 20%.

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Gas flaring at many oil and gas production sites protects against the dangers of over-pressuring industrial plant equipment. Photo Credit: Flickr/Ken Lund

During the BP meeting, Ali's father, Hussein, expressed that Ali's son loved nature and wanted the children to be able to play and breathe freely in the fresh air. The BBC also found evidence that major Western oil and gas companies operating in Iraq, including BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell, failed to report millions of tonnes of emissions from gas flaring.

Eni denied the accusations that his activities endangered the health of the Iraqi people. However, several of the UK's major pension funds voted against the re-election of BP chairman Helge Lund, citing concerns about the company's environmental impact, including from flaring gas. Despite protests from climate activists, Lund was re-elected by a majority vote.

What is gas flaring?

Gas flaring is the burning of natural gas that occurs during the extraction of crude oil or gas. It occurs when the gas cannot be processed or transported to a market or storage facility and therefore excess gas is flared in a controlled manner.

Gas flaring is a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change and health problems for nearby communities. It is also a waste of a valuable resource, as the gas flared could potentially be used for power production or other applications. Many countries have regulations to limit or reduce gas flaring.

Hidden emissions

According to an analysis, last year, Zubair in Iraq flared 2.61 billion cubic meters of gas, resulting in 7.31 million tons of CO2e emissions, which was a significant increase from the previous year. Eni, which has a 41% stake in Zubair, would be responsible for 41% of the field's emissions, amounting to 3m tonnes of CO2e by 2021.

However, Eni, like BP, considers its Iraqi asset it is not operational and excludes it from its annual weather reports, which reveal burning emissions. If Eni had included Zubair, its annual flaring emissions would have increased by more than 40%. Eni has said that it is not responsible for the high levels of flaring, as it is not the operator of Zubair and bears no responsibility.

Eni, BP and the Iraqi government are part of a World Bank initiative that aims to eliminate routine burning by 2030, which will contribute to sustainable development and tackle climate change. While BP has committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and eliminating routine flaring by 2030, its work in Iraq is not included in these targets.

The World Bank acknowledged that the zero routine flaring commitment does not include non-operated flaring, and the contractual arrangements may mean that companies do not have direct control or rights to associated gas in some fields.

Companies that have signed up to the UN-backed Oil and Gas Methane Association, including BP, will be required to report non-operated flaring by 2025, but Rumaila will not be included in this disclosure.

9 million deaths a year

The Guardian conducted research that revealed that air pollution is responsible for nine million deaths a year. The personal story of Ali, whom the authors had come to know, helped make this alarming statistic feel more human.

Despite growing up in a barren and polluted landscape, Ali was fond of gardening and would send videos of her small front yard, which consisted of a few palm trees and unique plants.

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(L-R) Mustafa, Fatima and Benin who all died from cancer. Source: BBC News Arabic

When shown images of England's verdant countryside, he was struck by the contrast between the lush greenery and the perpetually toxic orange sky he was used to. Companies like BP continue to break Iraqi law by illegally flaring gas near residential areas.

Ali's death will not be in vain, as investors like Nest are launching a shareholder rebellion against BP for failing to meet its climate targets. This story could also help ensure justice for the thousands of lives endangered by pollution caused by fossil fuel companies.

Pollution monitoring

In January 2022, the BBC conducted a two-week monitoring campaign at 13 locations around Basra, using passive diffusion tubes to collect samples of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including benzene. The EPA-approved sampling method revealed elevated benzene levels at all 13 sites, ranging from 2.7 µg/m3 to 9.7 µg/m3.

The World Health Organization considers that there is no safe level of exposure to benzene, while the Iraqi government has set a legal limit of an annual average of 3 µg/m3. Four sites near the oil fields, including Rumaila, Qurna and two locations in Nahran Omar, exceeded or met the legal limit.

Urine samples were also collected from 52 Iraqi children living near gas flares in southern Iraq. This was done because children are less likely than adults to be exposed to other sources of pollution, such as smoking or industrial work.

The samples were tested at a toxicology laboratory in Belgium for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), with a focus on 2-naphthol (2-NAP), which is a metabolite of naphthalene released during the burning of fossil fuels.

High levels of 2-NAP are linked to health problems, including chromosomal aberrations, and a Columbia University study suggests that levels above 5.8 µg/m3 are considered high.

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