Companies in Europe often take high-grade crude oil from African countries then send back fuel in return. Thing is, the fuel sent back isn’t always high grade. Many times the fuel is deemed too toxic for Europe -because it contains high levels of sulphur and can’t be legally sold in Europe – but considered ok for Africa.
Given the continent’s low fuel quality standards, the companies that do this break no rules because the fuel they sell in Africa is within legal limits. However, after years of serving as a dumping ground for Europe’s dirty fuel, five African countries – Nigeria, Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast – have banned some European fuel imports in an attempt to raise their fuel quality standards.
This move by Benin et al is in response to a report by Public Eye, a Swiss NGO, which reveals how “Swiss firms exploit lax regulatory standards to sell African customers fuel with high sulphur content” with the sulphur content more than 350 times higher than that permitted in Europe. The report, which is the summary of findings gathered over a 3 year period, goes on to say that these dirty fuels, having long been banned from Europe, are produced by these companies themselves who “mix up a petrochemical cocktail from refinery products and other components known in the industry as “African Quality“” to produce the fuel which is then sold to Africa. Firms named in the report include Vitol, Trafigura and Addax & Oryx.
According to a UN study, the populations in Africa’s urban areas suffer most from rapidly rising levels of air pollution and it’s estimated that by 2030, Africa will have three times more deaths from traffic-related particle dust than Europe, Japan and the US combined – all due to diesel fuel whose fumes cause respiratory health issues (already a major health issue on the continent) and can cause cancer. To mitigate these health risks, African countries have to adopt and enforce stricter rules on imports. The rejection of dirty fuel therefore, is a result of these five countries’ decision to limit sulphur in fuels by 60 times less than what it is today.
Given Nigeria’s population, over half of the fuel consumed in West Africa is consumed by Nigeria. By rejecting dirty fuels from Europe, Nigeria is sending a strong message and setting a good example – an example that, hopefully, other countries outside the region follow. This action should also force Nigeria to upgrade its extraction and production standards and improve its refineries to meet local demand and the higher standards that support cleaner energy. The decision of these five West African countries to adopt cleaner fuel could set the tone for foreign (and local) businesses looking to conduct business within Africa. It could also (and hopefully) create a ripple effect in which industries and governments begin cleaning up their act and holding themselves accountable to a higher standard.
The Swiss firms, on whom the report is based, only did what we allowed – our regulatory organizations fell asleep at the wheel allowing these fuels to be imported and sold at the pumps. Is the deliberate production of dirty fuel for a target market wrong? Depends on whom you ask – some would say yes, because that decision doesn’t take the African population’s health into consideration nor the impact to the globe which we all share, while others would say no, because it’s a matter of demand and supply – cheap dirty fuel is demanded, cheap dirty fuel is supplied.
It’s up to the government and any organizations within the country to implement and enforce standards and ethics for conducting business within its borders and quality measures on any imports it allows – be it good or service. So regardless of the direction in which you lean, European firms cannot be faulted for simply adapting their behaviour to the laws in place.
And in case you’re wondering, the companies exporting dirty fuels to Africa will likely go unpunished because while their product is toxic, their action is certainly not illegal.