KOLUAMA 2, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's president attempted to calm anger in villages Monday near a Chevron Corp. offshore natural gas rig that has been engulfed in a raging fire for weeks, though no official could say when the inferno will be extinguished.
President Goodluck Jonathan offered few specifics in his speech to those from surrounding communities who crowded into a meeting hall in the village of Koluama 2, instead reminding those gathered he too hailed from the region.
While villagers greeted him with cheers, he entered the hall under a handwritten sign that demanded "Chevron must go" and some youths promised to attack the San Ramon, California-based company's assets in the area if their demands weren't met.
"How will our people benefit from this given to us by God?" the community asked in a joint statement read to the president, referring to the abundance of oil and gas in the region.
Koluama 2, a village along the Atlantic Ocean in Jonathan's native Bayelsa state, awoke Jan. 16 to a series of explosions from Chevron's KS Endeavor natural gas rig, which sits only 10 kilometers (6 miles) from shore. Two workers died in the blast, who officials on Monday identified as nationals of India and France.
In the time since, the raging fire from an unstopped natural gas leak at the site has softened the steel of the rig, causing it to collapse into the ocean. The fire can be seen clearly off the white sand beach at Koluama 2, as can another rig put in place to try and drill a relief well to stop the fire.
Chevron says it continues to investigate what started the fire but is not offering any estimate on how long it will burn. Nigeria's government believes a "gas kick" — a major buildup of gas pressure from drilling — was responsible for the blaze.
Levi Ajuonoma, a spokesman for the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., told journalists gathered at Koluama 2 for Jonathan's visit that the government continues to work closely with Chevron. Foreign oil firms like Chevron must partner with the state-run firm to pump oil out of Nigeria, an OPEC nation that remains a top energy supplier to the U.S.
"This is not a kitchen fire," Ajuonoma said. "This is a major, major gas fire."
Locals have complained about rashes, breathing difficulty and gastrointestinal problems since the fire began. Chevron has said its own tests have found no air pollution from the blaze, though it acknowledges some fish have been killed from the fire. Fishing remains how many in the surrounding communities earn a living.
Andrew Fawthrop, the managing director of Chevron's Nigerian subsidiary, said his company planned to begin work this week on improving the medical clinic serving Koluama 2. His short remarks during the meeting with Jonathan drew grumbles from an audience that already put up placards reading "Our lives are in serious danger" and "Hunger Hunger Hunger."
Jonathan told the crowd the government would look into getting more relief material and jobs for the local community, but offered no specifics in his speech.
"I assure you the federal government is totally committed," he said.
But as Jonathan's helicopter took off from the community, local youths gathered there said they'd give Chevron a week to offer compensation they thought was appropriate before taking action against their facilities in the area. Threats against foreign oil firms working in the Niger Delta remain common, despite the 2009 amnesty deal that largely ended militant activity in the region.
Foreign firms have pumped oil out of the delta for more than 50 years. Despite the billions of dollars flowing into Nigeria's government, many in the delta remain desperately poor, living in polluted waters without access to proper medical care, an education or work.
Nigeria produces about 2.4 million barrels of crude oil a day, making it Africa's top producer. Chevron had hoped its KS Endeavor gas rig would usher in a new push for gas in the country.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.