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Death and oil in Niger Delta's illegal refineries

By Christian Purefoy, CNN
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Nigeria's deadly oil business
  • Illegal refineries distill diesel from crude oil by heating over naked flames
  • Worker: "I cannot count the number of people who have died in explosions"
  • Nigeria is major oil exporter, but most in Niger Delta live on less than $2 a day
  • Shell managing director estimates around 100,000 barrels stolen a day

Niger Delta, Nigeria (CNN) -- The young man, his body glistening with black oil and sweat, poured more oil onto the fire. The flames roared, heating two barrels of oil to explosive temperatures. He escaped to a safer distance, a slight smile breaking his grim face ­-- he had survived.

"This job is very dangerous," he explains, asking to remain anonymous. "The smoke, the heat ­-- I cannot count the number of people who have died in explosions because they cannot escape the flames."

He is risking his life trying to refine diesel from oil in the swamps of Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta.

The contraption looks like a crude school science project. The aim is to boil two barrels of oil to evaporate the diesel which then passes down a rusted pipe, cooled by water, and drips slowly out into a container at the other end.

Heating oil to such temperatures with such basic equipment is dangerous. Having the distilled diesel only a few meters from a naked flame can be lethal. The surrounding trees and earth are blackened from the flames and explosions.

The four young men working the illegal refineries stand a respectable distance from the flames until it is their turn to pour more oil on the fire.

Gallery: Nigeria's illegal oil refineries
Map: Niger Delta

Nigeria is the fifth-largest oil exporter to the U.S. but little money from the country's oil industry has been invested in its main oil-producing region -- the Niger Delta.

Taken out over the region in a Shell helicopter, the illegal oil-refining sites look like small pockets of hell -­ scorched earth with great flames leaping up from small dark craters.

From the air, Shell facilities that have been attacked and the subsequent oil spills can be seen.

The oil companies, the government and the communities below are locked in a battle of blame over who is responsible for the cycle of violence.

Meanwhile, the region is being plundered. There is little development and the majority of people live on less that $2 a day, despite the region's vast oil wealth.

And at the heart of the problem is corruption --­ billions of dollars worth of oil are being stolen in a massive illegal business known as "oil bunkering."

"I would put the figure at about 100,000 barrels a day," explains Mutiu Sunmonu, the Managing Director of Shell. "Some of it is stolen in tankers."

Sold abroad for a price of $60 a barrel, 100,000 barrels would be worth more than $2 billion a year. On Monday, the crude oil futures market surged past $80 a barrel to its highest levels in three months.

No-one has been prosecuted but reports accuse local politicians and the military of heavy involvement.

The young men at the illegal refineries however collect their oil in dugout canoes, not tankers. They are not the major players. And they say they are tired of receiving all the blame and none of the money from Nigeria's oil industry.

But when I asked if he saw a way out he simply shook his head. Then he turned and ran to put more oil on the fire before it died out.

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