On February 27, Nigeria confirmed its first case of COVID-19 which at the time had infected just about 80, 000 people with a little below 3, 000 dead as a result. Exactly one year later today, with over 113, 000, 000 people infected and over 2, 500, 000 dead globally, the pandemic has radically transformed the way of life of the world. There has been learning across various sectors and a re-imagination of how things are done. A critical question is, has the Nigerian energy sector learned anything?
In early March, only about a week after Nigeria’s index case, the world was greeted by oil shocks resulting from the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, further aggravated by falling demands resulting from lockdowns, flight restrictions and the general apprehension about movement and the pandemic. Countries dependent on oil exports, like Nigeria, were concerned about the toll it would take on their economy.
Oil went to an all-time low, the lowest it has ever been in 18 years and many economies went into panic mode. It was not long before the Nigerian government removed petroleum subsidies at the tail end of Q1 as it was costing the country up to $2 billion a year. The end to subsidies -or what we assumed was the end, led to market-led pricing for petroleum.
Around the same time, the marginal field bid rounds were launched, with the various fees to be paid by prospective investors rising exponentially from what they were under the last bid rounds, and required to be paid up front. The country also witnessed increased divestment in oil and gas assets by major oil and gas companies. At the start of Q4, the government introduced what it called service-reflective tariffs which were about twice the initial costs previously paid by customers.
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There was equally a significant peak in renewable energy projects as many were turning to it for succor due to increased petroleum prices and utility power tariffs. The Federal government also launched its solar power strategy to electrify 5 million homes with solar power. We saw a heightened commitment to gas utilization, with the Central Bank introducing the N250bn intervention facility to stimulate investment in the local gas value chain.
The Minister of Petroleum for State, Chief Timipre Sylva had also promised that gas-powered cars would begin operating in October 2020. In his words “The alternative we are now introducing is gas, which is definitely going to be cheaper than the subsidised rate of PMS”.
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He went on to say that Nigerians were urged to convert their cars to dual fuel. Four months later, we are yet to see any auto gas cars ply our roads. There were also very swift moves to pass the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) last year, and indeed many stakeholders waited expectantly for it, but the legislature failed to deliver.
Soon, the Federal Government launched the Nigerian Gas Expansion Program at the tail end of Q4, a month after the news of the country officially entering recession broke. The aim of the Program was to increase gas development from three streams- Liquefied Natural gas (LNG,) Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).
With initial reports of a vaccine rollout, the oil price that had crashed to lower than $30 per barrel last year began a steady and somewhat magical rise and currently has gone as high as $67, with predictions that it could rise to as much as $100, particularly with the release of more vaccines and easing of lockdown.
With things looking good for the country again, we see a return of the petroleum subsidy in the locked pricing of petrol. A return of fuel subsidy means heavily increased subsidy payments for the country and similarly an increased propensity for corruption and misuse of funds which has characterized Nigeria’s subsidy regime for long. We cannot claim to have learned much as a country if we think all is well, and we are out of the woods.
It would be counterintuitive to wait on another oil shock to begin to quickly diversify our portfolio and heavily invest in gas and renewables. Like the Biblical story of Joseph and Pharaoh, we should save during our “seven fat years” for the “seven lean years”.
This is not the time for Nigeria to sit back and gloat in its rising oil fortunes, but a time to invest in improving energy access for its citizens by funding renewable energy research, aggressively supporting a solar drive, entering into public-private partnerships for gas development and providing incentives for businesses working in the energy transition space. Perhaps climate change and the decisions made around it will be the next price cruncher for oil. Whichever way, we cannot afford not to be battle-ready.