Tour Nigeria Series 1: Oloibiri Oil Wells

At the Oloibiri Oil Wells. Posing with the Christmas Tree Drilling Equipment on Christmas Day

Arriving Yenogoa, Bayelsa State

Today is Christmas. I had travelled all night from Ondo State to arrive Yenogoa in Bayelsa State that morning. I had two goals in mind for this visit. First, was to visit the Palace of The Jaja of Opobo and the other was to visit the site where it is believed crude oil was first drilled in commercial quantity in Nigeria. I had earlier visited the Idanre Hills and the ancient community on it the previous day before embarking on this other trip.

On the streets on Yenogoa, Bayelsa State.

My arrival to Yenogoa that morning was somehow unplanned; I had neither informed any of my friends living there I was coming nor did I make a hotel reservation. I only entered the town, knowing fully well I could find my way around. I reached out to two of my friends Austin and David. They welcomed me with open arms, but I had to go to Austins.

Austin is a friend of several years. He is a soldier and he was posted to Bayelsa at the time. When I called to inform him that morning I was around, he invited me over to his barracks. I was with him and other soldiers for more than four hours that Christmas morning. Around noon, Austin had to relocate me a guest house where I would stay for the evening. He was going to work that evening and non-military personnel were not allowed overnight at the facility after a particular time in the evenings. He paid the cost for the place in full.

Another friend of mine since my days in journalism school David came to visit me at the guest house. He had promised me earlier that if I should visit Bayelsa, he would take me around town – especially to Jaja of Opobos Palace and I expected him to live up to his promises, though I never notified him I was coming that Christmas. I was bit bothered about his family which would not be very happy he’s absent on a very important holiday of the year.

I had hoped the two sites I intended to visit were close to each other but unfortunately, they were not. The closest of the places to Elebele community where I lodged was Oloibiri community where it was recorded oil was first discovered and drilled in commercial quantity in Nigeria. The second, which was the Palace of the Jaja of Opobo in Opobo Kingdom in Rivers State was a very far journey.

David and myself left my guest house on a motorbike for almost a 45 minutes ride to the site. On arrival, we passed the location and continued for some minutes before David realized that he was seeing a different landscape than he saw the several times he had visited and that mentioned that he thinks we have just passed the spot – and that was the truth, the place had been overgrown with grasses due the lack of maintenance by relevant authorities, hence we were not able to see it. So if you intend to visit, just be very watchful, or you might miss it.

History of Crude Oil and Its Exploration

Scientists believe that the process of the formation of Crude Oil started millions of years ago when lots of microorganisms lived and died and were buried under sand and silt. These decomposed to form crude oil. Some of these oil was forced to the earth’s surface by the accumulated pressure within the earth’s crust. Some of these crude were forced into underground reservoirs and these are what we today refer to as oil reserves.

The history of crude oil extraction and mining dates back to 600 BC in ancient China when they dug it out in the process of drilling for water and brine. A few old records noted they used crude oil for heating and lighting. Ancient native Americans used these as ointments for treatment.

Oil deposits were discovered in Baku, then Bobrka, Bucharest in Europe and then Ontario and Pennsylvania in North America. The first discovery was in Baku around 1846 and then Pennsylvania around 1859. This discovery in Pennsylvania marked the beginning of the modern ‘discovery of oil in commercial quantity’ in history. Many people consider it so because it was drilled, not dug as it has with most cases (even though oil was drilled in the Caribbean before this time); also because it used a primitive steam engine in the drilling process, others before then employed manual labor. It was also considered so because there was a company associated the exploration and drilling then and finally was because this discovery marked the very first oil boom in history.

The Pennsylvania discovery was made by Col. Edwin Drake (not really a Colonel but it was a title given to him by his investors who hoped it would help him earn more respect from the locals when he was prospecting for oil). This major discovery of oil this marked the first oil boom in history and gave lots of returns to the earlier investors but these returns were short-lived. The oil wells in ran dry and most of those who were enriched by the process died in penury. He was probably not as foresighted as a few other players who monopolized the drilling, transportation and sales of crude oil by products.

Around this time lived one Dr. Bill Livingston, a celebrated cancer specialist and was the very image of the traveling snake oil salesman. He was neither a doctor nor a cancer specialist. His real name was not even Livingston – he adopted this name after he was accused of raping a girl in 1849. He was known to manufacture and sell The Rock Oil, which he claimed cured cancer but this medication had no effect on cancer at all. He spent most of his life time running from people he conned into purchasing his fake remedy.

He abandoned his family in the United States and moved to Canada to be married to another woman and raised another family there. When he’s not running away from his crimes, he taught his children the tricks of his trades. He often boasted “I cheat my boys every chance I get…I want to make them sharp”. Some called him Big Bill because of his tall stature but he was infamously called Devil Bill. His real name was William E. Rockefeller and it was his son, John D. Rockefeller who would be the founder of Standard Oil, the first oil monopoly and the first billionaire in modern history. Devil Bill’s treachery would go a long way to shape the oil industry the way it has been run for almost going to two centuries now.

John D. Rockefeller, who barely finished high school and also worked as a bookkeeper in Ohio. He was very good with numbers reading about the oil boom in Pennsylvania in the late 1850’s, went down to Pennsylvania armed with 1000 dollars which his father had given him at that time.

He formed partnerships with several people and around 1870, he accessed bank loans and incorporated the Standard Oil. A very smart businessman, he employed every means available to scheme out other competitors. He once said competition is a sin and he was very smart not to allow anyone compete with him. He devised ways to lower the cost of transporting petroleum product to different parts of America. In 1879, he would control almost 90 percent of oil refining worldwide and also controlled the market.

He influenced other businessmen and other rich families worldwide to emulate his Standard Oil’s success story. These gave birth to oil businesses like Shell and the Royal Dutch Petroleum which would merge today to form the company called Royal Dutch Shell. The BP was also born out of the Europeans desire to compete with the John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.

A problem surfaced with the invention of electricity around 1880 which provided alternative and cheaper lighting and heating which were the major reasons oil was needed then. This almost threw Standard Oil out of business. But around same time, Carl Benz, a German engineer invented the internal combustion engine which runs on Gasoline – a byproduct of refining crude oil which was disposed at a time.  This invention saved the industry then.

In 1911, the US supreme court in an attempt to break the Standard Oil monopoly dissolved the Standard Oil, an act which though many thought would harm the company, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Rockefeller. The several pieces that were formed from this breakup formed the Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and several other companies we know of today and Rockefeller had shares in all these companies. This made him a billionaire instantly. He nearly controlled 2 percent of the United States of America’s economy after that breakup.

These offshoots of Standard Oil and their European counterparts would grow to become what is today referred to as the Seven Sisters and would to a large extent define the activities of not just the oil industry but pharmaceuticals, agriculture and even education. They have treacherously screwed up everything for their benefit. In the pharmaceutical industries for instance, they invested so much to change the narratives for natural cure of ailments and sickness using plants and natural sources to using petrochemical products instead. They are also major investors in the major pharmaceutical companies worldwide which utilize lots of petrochemical products. The Rockefeller Foundation for instance which was meant to be a way of giving back  to the society has been used to change the education system, the pharmaceutical industries, agrochemical industries to become more dependent on petroleum and its byproducts worldwide.

Back home in Nigeria, a lot of these companies have wrecked lots of havoc in some of the communities where they drill and transport petroleum products. Oil spill is a common place in the Niger Delta and this has devastated lots of the communities who cannot drink from their streams or fish from the water. The oil companies go against global best practice to spill without cleaning up. We will be exploring oil spills in the Niger Delta in some future write ups.

In Nigeria historically, the then Royal Dutch Shell founded Shell D’Arcy, the first Shell company in Nigeria. This company was given exploration license to prospect for oil throughout Nigeria in 1938. The company, which was then based in Owerri claimed it discovered and drilled oil in commercial quantities in Oloibiri, in the now Bayelsa State of Nigeria.

A few other people however believe that oil has was actually discovered elsewhere around Owerri before this time. According to Tony Nnadi of the Niger Lower Congress, the company had drilled oil secretly and exported same out of Nigeria without the knowledge of Nigeria at the time.

Some also believe that oil was first discovered in Araromi, a place in present day Ondo State around 1908 by the German Nigerian Bitumen Company. This according to the proponents of the ideology, the Germans had to abandon the exploration imitative due to the fact they were on a British colony and the eruption of the World War I. The fault with this line of thought however is that the word Nigeria never existed until 1914 when the Lord Lugard’s mistress Flora Shaw coined the name Nigeria that described the single colony formed by the merger of the Southern and Northern British Protectorates in present day Nigeria.

The Christmas Day Football Match between the young and the old in this community.

It was very late in the evening. We went around to see a few of the equipment that was used then to drill oil at this location. We took some pictures, then left back to my guest house at Elebele in Yenagoa with the same motorbike that brought us there. The communities around there were very lively. On our way back, we even passed a football competition but older and younger people in the community.

With this feat achieved that day, I planned for my onward journey the next day to the Jaja of Opobo’s Palace in Opobo Kingdom in Rivers State.

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About Ifeatu Osegbo 101 Articles
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