Port of Antwerp hub for high-sulfur fuel export to Nigeria
Samples taken in Nigeria showed diesel with 204 times more sulfur and gasoline with 43 times more sulfur than permitted in Europe. The samples came from gas stations selling fuels from Europe. In particular from Belgium and the Netherlands.
Belgium needs a clear view of the export of very sulfur-rich gasoline and diesel to Nigeria from the port of Antwerp. That is what the president of the Belgian Petroleum Federation, Jean-Pierre Van Dijk, says in the newspaper De Standaard.
The British NGO Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN) denounced the problem. Nigeria is a dumping ground for motor fuels that are virtually unsaleable in the rest of the world because they contain far too many harmful substances. It is one of the major causes of gigantic air pollution in Nigeria’s major cities.
The port of Antwerp, together with Rotterdam and Amsterdam, comes into the picture as the origin of the dirty fuels. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, 80 % of the dirty gasoline and diesel imported into Nigeria comes from Belgium and the Netherlands.
In 2016, the Swiss NGO Public Eye already published a report on this subject. At the time, it estimated that half of the supply of polluting diesel and gasoline to West and Central Africa came from Belgium and the Netherlands.
This study identified several large international traders and commodity traders operating out of Switzerland. These included some commodity traders such as Vitol, Trafigura (the owner of Nyrstar), and Gunvor. Several of these companies are also active in the port of Antwerp.
In 2018, there was a Dutch survey. Companies exporting gasoline and diesel to West Africa in the port of Amsterdam turned out not to take the environmental rules not so seriously. The study found many samples of diesel containing up to 300 times more sulfur than what is permitted in Europe.
The study also found several carcinogenic products in concentrations much higher than what is permitted in Europe. Moreover, it was extremely difficult to trace the origin of diesel and gasoline. The fuels turned out to be a cocktail of residues from oil refineries and petrochemical by-products.
Port of Antwerp involvement
This raises the question of the role of the port of Antwerp in these practices. So far, there has been no attempt to map it out. There have been some questions in the Antwerp municipal council, in the Flemish Parliament, and during a round table discussion between environmental managers of the Belgian and Dutch ports. That meeting concluded that something had to be done about it at the European level. But it did not come to anything.
According to the president of the Belgian Petroleum Federation, Jean Pierre Van Dijk, there needs to be a clear and correct picture of the situation emerges. The Netherlands and Belgium are in the same situation. “But the difference is that the Netherlands has already done its homework to get an overview of that output, while Belgium has unfortunately made no effort at all to make a good overview of its role.”
Also responsibility in Nigeria
Port of Antwerp CEO, Jacques Vandermeiren, is also not happy that his port plays a leading role. “Even though it will all be legal, you can’t ignore the question whether it’s still okay that fuels are traded and shipped in our port, which are no longer allowed in Europe.”
Both he and Van Dijk do point out that there is also work to be done in Nigeria. The rule that diesel may only contain 50 ppm sulfur there remains a dead letter in the country. According to Vandermeiren, as long as this does not change, banning the export of dirty car fuels from the Port of Antwerp will immediately move the practice to places where no questions are asked.
Michel Leyseele, who is in charge of the pipeline company of the Antwerp port authority, sees more possibilities for abuse in the future. “For the export of diesel and gasoline to Nigeria, you do need a port. But that does not automatically mean that the storage and blending of all kinds of residual products from the oil refineries and petrochemical industry also have to take place in ports.”
Today, this is more than likely the case, he states, because there are a lot of storage possibilities in ports. But he warns that in the coming years, traders who buy all kinds of residual products from refineries and petrochemical companies will have more and more choice where they want to store them temporarily pending export to Africa. Storage tanks will become available throughout Europe, he predicts, because the refineries that currently use them will close down.
David Azoulay of the Swiss Center for International Environmental Law knows that the Basel Convention asked Belgium for an explanation after the publication of the Public Eye report in 2016. That convention is a set of international agreements on banning trade in waste. Belgium simply stated that the country of destination has the possibility to ban the supply of goods that are not as a rule.
Azoulay does not consider such an argument to be a reason to let things run their course. According to him, Belgium is hiding behind the dysfunction of international rules and their poor application by states such as Nigeria. This is ethically and morally scandalous.
In 2017, Azoulay co-authored a legal opinion on the export to Africa of car fuels that are harmful to people and the environment. The conclusion was that this is totally contrary to human rights. But to have those rights respected, political will is needed. “Or courts must enforce those international rules of law. So far there have been no legal cases against the export of dirty car fuels. But Belgium and the Netherlands know that they allow companies with few scruples to operate from their territory.”