07 Jan 2019

Foreign companies cashing in on dirty diesel

European firms continue to export toxic diesel to West Africa, despite the great risks it poses to public health.

Much of the diesel exported to West Africa from Europe contains very ‘high levels of sulphur’, is highly ‘toxic’ and – if no major action is taken – the ‘traffic-related air pollution will soon be a major health issue’ –  according to a report published in September 2016 by Swiss NGO Public Eye. The NGO accuses various Swiss oil firms of selling toxic or dirty diesel to several African countries. These findings are based on diesel samples taken at the pump from public service stations in Angola, Benin, Republic of Congo, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Zambia.

This unethical practice was confirmed in June 2018 by the Dutch Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate, which found commodity firms based in the Netherlands were selling dirty diesel to African states. The Inspectorate tested samples taken between June 2016 and May 2017 from 44 tankers carrying shipments to West Africa. The results confirmed that the fuel traders were using ‘low-quality and unhealthy blend stocks when blending diesel and gasoline for West Africa.’

Poor regulatory standards in West Africa have contributed to the practice. According to a report for United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment), whereas the limit for the level of sulphur is 10 ppm (parts per million) in Europe, it varies between 151–500 ppm and 501–3 500 ppm in West Africa.

Oil companies are fully aware of the poor quality of the oil, and bribe employees of testing laboratories to turn a blind eye

Weak regulation, coupled with the laxness of authorities, have made it easy for European traders to continue to export dirty diesel in the region. The problem is compounded by corruption. Oil companies are fully aware of the poor quality of the oil, and are also believed to bribe employees of testing laboratories to turn a blind eye.

The Ghana Standard authority argues that ‘No one knows what is going on in their [the oil companies’] storage. As private players, they conduct their own testing and no neutral person is involved. Certificates have been forged before. The importer can easily conspire with a private lab. For example, the lab can provide a certificate before the product is blended with lower quality. Most often, a small employee of the lab is corrupt rather than the company itself. He mixes samples, for instance. Storage owners also sometimes deliberately lower the quality of the final product by blending in tanks.’ This type of bribery is not only limited to Ghana. It’s also applicable to Benin and Nigeria according to the Public Eye report.

It appears that firms have developed sophisticated strategies that allow them to continue flooding the region with dirty diesel. Most have become both suppliers and vendors: according to Public Eye, companies have acquired hundreds of stations in Africa. In 2015, Vitol and Trafigura made a total profit of US$270 billion and US$14.4 billion, respectively. The process of acquiring markets in Africa  is often made possible by large-scale corruption involving African heads of state and their family members.

Despite the negative impact that dirty diesel has on public health and on the environment, West African governments have not done much to curb the damage

Despite the negative impact the dirty diesel has on public health and on the environment, West African governments have not done much to curb the damage. Only Ghana has taken concrete actions, limiting the sulphur level to 50 ppm. Nigeria has on several occasions announced that it would enact new legislation to limit sulphur to the same level, but has failed to implement it. According to Andreas Missbach, joint managing director at Public Eye, this failure is mainly due to ‘the obstruction of the industry and importers. They use false arguments about cost increases.’

Arguably, dirty diesel is one of the biggest scandals to have occurred in the region in the past decade. Unfortunately, the majority of the population is unaware of this unethical and destructive practise.

African governments should urgently review regulatory standards, and adopt policies that will reduce the permitted level of sulphur in diesel. At the same time, civil society organisations across the region must work to raise awareness, and uncover the corruption that underlies this practice.

Mouhamadou Kane, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS

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