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Careful policy makers: oil issues have intricacies

Wed, 4 Aug 2010 Source: GNA

A GNA Feature by Hannah Asomaning

Accra, Aug. 4, GNA - Our minds were set that we were going to learn about the best practices in oil drilling in the United States, so we did not care about the pre-departure vigorous checks at the airport.

Martin Asmah, a graduate student at the University of Ghana, while waiting to board the Delta Airlines flight, expressed a lot of happiness.

He said: "I am all for it, the United States, wow, they know. and I am going to learn as much as I can."

Martin was among a group of 22 professionals working in environment related industries selected to participate in an exchange programme between the University of Ghana and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Therefore the expression of some sort of confusion was not surprising when during the first week we kept hearing about Mountain Top Coal Removal, a kind of mining technique that is used to mine coal in West Virginia.

Stop Mountain Top Coal Removal

Contrary to our general expectations, we witnessed how some communities in West Virginia complained of water and air pollution because of Mountain Top Coal removal.

They complained about how their lands have been destroyed and yet they get no benefit from the mining that goes on in their communities apart from the fact that some of their people are employed in this "risky business."

Mountain Top Coal removal is a technique where coal is mined by removing the top of mountains to get access to coal deposited in them.

I remember very well a statement made by a teacher turned mining advocate at Mingo County.

He said "Mountain Top coal removal is the work of the devil and should be stopped." Enquiring further why he said that, he explained that the coal slurry (waste from the coal) accidentally gets into their water and now their drinking water is highly contaminated.

They complained about dust from blasting activities of the mining companies, noise and many other inconveniences that their local government seems to do nothing about.

Some of the people said mining in West Virginia was done without regards to environment laws and that all the mining companies thought about was their profit.

At a point in time we all turned advocates when one of the families we visited gave us red bandanas to support the fight against Mountain Top Coal removal.

Gas Mining Activities Gives me Sore throat

The story was the same at the gas mining communities that the group visited in Pittsburgh. One woman said, "Now I do not know how it is like to live without having a sore throat." She explained that some gases from the mining process contaminate the air and cause them a lot of health hazards.

"The last time I checked, the doctor said I have some amount of Benzene (a poisonous chemical) in my blood, where do I go and who do I go to?" she asked.

Therefore, when I heard Martin whispering to a friend two weeks into our visit that "Sheeiii, is this the United States? Then Ghana has to be careful about the oil and gas drilling ahead," I smiled.

Dr Raymond Babanawo, a Project Technical Assistant at Ghana's Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology (MEST), asked an important question that continues to linger in my mind.

He asked: "If the United States, which is seen as the mother of all developed nations, is saying that they need money for development and, therefore, cannot afford not to mine, then what should Ghana say?"

Indeed, income from mining in the US is huge, 50 per cent of households in the developed country use or depend on coal for energy.

The US Department of Energy also anticipates a 13 per cent increase in the demand for natural gas by 2030.

To Mine or Not to Mine

Peter Arroja Eshun, a Mining Engineer and Senior Lecturer at the University of Mines, Tarkwa, puts it this way, "To mine or not to mine"

Ghana is excited about the oil find and majority of Ghanaians await the celebration of the first commercial production. Many Ghanaians anticipate that the oil will help ease the economic burden and life will be better.

However, oil drilling like any other industry has its challenges and people get affected negatively or positively.

In Ghana, the biggest concern is how the government formulates policies that will ensure that every Ghanaian benefits positively from the oil find.

This includes ensuring that there are laws and regulations that bind the oil companies to operate responsibly.

Further, ensuring that the right of every Ghanaian is respected, is informed about the processes and that Ghanaians can buy fuel cheaper than it is sold now.

Oil for All

The government may want to go a step further by organizing town hall meetings especially with communities near the oil find area to increase public education on the processes.

Nevertheless, the citizens of Ghana all have a role to play in ensuring transparency in the oil policy that government formulates.

The biggest power any country has is its citizens, that is having citizens who are well informed and who can come together to fight for a common cause devoid of greed.

Mrs Sheila Ashong, the Programme Officer at the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) said: "My expectations for coming to the US have not been met because I was hoping to learn best practices in impact assessments, however, I have learnt from the mistakes of the United States."

"I have seen everything that Ghana should not do," she said and added that Ghana is doing well in terms of impact assessment and Ghanaians must learn to appreciate what we have.

She said, "I think the people of Ghana own the oil, they own the resource and, therefore, their needs must come first in policy formulation."

Mrs Victoria Frempong, a Lecturer at the Department of Mining Engineering at the University of Mines, Tarkwa, appealed to the government not to depend solely on developed countries for advice, stressing, "both developed and developing countries face similar problems."

All in all, oil issues have intricacies so government should not simply listen to what the oil drilling companies are saying, they should listen and pay attention to what they mean.

Columnist: GNA