West Africa’s fight with foreign fuels

From ToxicLeaks

European firms dump low-quality fuels[edit | edit source]

In 2016, the investigative and advocacy organization Public Eye, based in Switzerland, issued a revealing report on how Swiss commodity trading companies were responsible for sending “Africa blend” fuels to their neighboring continent. These road fuel blends, with the emphasis on toxins, would never meet the increasingly rigorous standards of the European Union: The EU standard for sulphur in road fuels, for example, has been at 10 ppm since 2009. Europe’s citizens expect health and environment protections.


Yet in the developing world, it’s possible to dump low-quality fuel exports that turn the air toxic and contribute to lasting ecological damage as well as high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. That’s been the case in West Africa, where Public Eye traced nearly half of all fuels to an origin at Dutch ports and the tankers loaded there – though it was Swiss companies that were behind the suspect fuels.


Public Eye identified four trading firms and then tested their products available at the pumps in eight countries. The commodity traders were identified as notoriously environmentally negligent Trafigura, operating through Puma, Pumangol, Gazelle trading and UBI; Vitol, as Vivo Energy with the Shell brand; Addax & Oryx Group, and Lynx Energy (X-Oil). They were chosen because Switzerland is home to a 35 percent market share of crude oil and petroleum product trading, and some of these companies have been snapping up fuel-station retail outlets in Africa across the last decade. There was a reason why.


In the eight countries where Public Eye ran their sampling – Angola, Benin, the Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Senegal and Zambia – they found fuels that could never be sold in Europe, and for that matter the United States or Russia. Seventeen out of 25 diesel samples had sulphur content higher than 1,500 ppm, which is 150 times the EU limit. A fuel station in Mali came in at 3,780 ppm.


Gasoline mixes weren’t any better. Ten out of 22 samples exceeded the European standard at ranges between 15 and 72 times the sulphur, quite apart from the alarming levels of benzene and other toxins.

The June 2018 report from the Netherlands[edit | edit source]

Public Eye urged an end to low-quality and toxic fuel sales in West Africa. Yet it also focused in on the ARA region – Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp – where much of the fuel was loaded and in some cases, blended later. It called on the Dutch government as well as Switzerland to end the dirty dealing.


The Netherlands responded with a comprehensive report concluded in June 2018, produced by the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) of the country’s Ministry of Infras tructure and Water Management. The findings were unequivocal and damning: Europe sends its poison to Africa.


For example, gasoline for European vehicles may contain no more than 1 percent benzene, but West Africa was seeing blends with more than 40 percent intentionally added. “The Inspectorate also found on-road fuels that contained 300 times more sulphur than is permitted in the EU,” the ILT report said. “Basically all investigated gasoline blends contain manganese, a substance that is prohibited in Europe.”


Diesel shipped to West Africa had high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), making it more carcinogenic. It also boosts levels of particulate matter that threaten human health. Part of the Dutch inquiry was to determine if companies were intentionally dumping hazardous chemicals.


Dutch authorities added to their conclusions that, in addition to clear legal violations found across two years of inspections, the industry’s lack of transparency made enforcement more difficult. The ILT also noted that other European nations were responsible too, and placed the matter on the EU’s agenda.

West Africa’s air quality regulation[edit | edit source]

Some of the European interests – Trafigura, for example – defended their decisions by placing the blame on West African nations with low regulatory standards.  “Fuel quality standards are a matter for national governments, which tightly regulate fuel prices as well as content,” the company said in its response to the Public Eye report. “Trafigura supplies fuel that meets national quality specifications in all the markets where it operates.” If Swiss companies followed the Public Eye recommendations, they said, traders from other countries would simply fill their shoes and “nothing would change on the ground.”


“The important decisions on fuel quality in Africa rest with African governments, not with fuel suppliers or their host countries,” the company said, pointedly describing Public Eye as an advocate for “intrusive regulation” of Swiss companies. The Dutch government report did not name any individual companies.


The United Nations Environment Program, though, was quick to condemn the corporate malpractice. “The shipping of dirty fuels to West Africa has been nothing short of an environmental and public health scandal,” said UNEP chief Erik Solheim, urging other nations to follow the Dutch lead. “The industry players also have a critical role in raising the bar,” he added. “Substandard products should not be sold even if they meet national standards.” 

Seeking a future breath of fresh air[edit | edit source]

Despite the appallingly self-serving corporate position, it remains true that African countries must do more to raise their pollution control standards – and they are. In 2015, the East African Community introduced new regulations for Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, which limits sulphur in diesel to 50 ppm. That’s not as strict as Europe’s standards but a vast improvement. Other African nations including Mozambique and Zimbabwe followed suit in 2018. Nigeria and Ghana are looking to the same target and the 15-nation West African regional body ECOWAS wants a common standard.


Those decisions become even more critical in a time of global climate change, and with increasingly dire warnings about air quality in the developing world. An October 2018 report on air pollution issued by the World Health Organization found 100 percent of all children younger than five are exposed to particulate matter above the PM2.5 cutoff in WHO’s African and Eastern Mediterranean zones.


There are already 324,000 Africans dying from vehicle and industrial emissions annually, ranking it between meningitis and malaria, according to a December 2017 study from NASA. AIDS is no longer the top cause of death in Africa; as of 2015, it was respiratory infection causing a million deaths annually.


As the climate warms and urban populations grow in countries like Nigeria, protecting air quality is a critical task for Africans – but that’s no excuse for the dirty-energy companies seeking to leverage their laws into lucrative opportunities, at the expense of human health and environmental protections. Better still is a shift to clean energy vehicles that will end forever the toxic-fuel dumping ground in Africa.