Q&A with Wayne King
"Recovering politician" Wayne King shifts his focus to using oil spill cleanup byproducts for electricity generation in Africa.
Photo by Jodie Andruskevich
When Wayne King, a former three-term state senator, lost his bid as Democratic nominee for governor in 1994, he gave up politics and headed full steam into a wide range of entrepreneurial, environmental and economic development activities.
King, a University of New Hampshire graduate who lives in Rumney, was CEO and founder of the oil spill cleanup firm MOP Environmental Solutions. He also was a founding member of the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund and served for almost 15 years on the board of the Northern Community Investment Corp.
But King, also an accomplished photographer, may end up better known for his efforts in West Africa. In the years following his first visit in 1997 with the Ford Foundation, he founded of The Electronic Community Project, a group of social entrepreneurs working on social and development issues in West Africa.
He is working to secure international funding for the Phoenix Project, a $12 million pilot effort aimed at cleaning up endemic oil spills in the region while fostering economic development and electricity and using the cleanup byproducts for electricity generation by utilizing ground-breaking technologies. King is talking to foundations, development organizations, oil companies and going the crowdfunding route to raise the money needed to move the project from promising theory to on-the-ground reality.
Q. Why do the sizable oil spills in Nigeria go mostly unreported and not cleaned up?
A. In Nigeria alone, they have the annual equivalent of two oil spills the same size as the Gulf spill (of 2010). It goes unreported because it’s simply in a remote part of the world and just doesn’t get a lot of media exposure.
Most of the spills do not get cleaned up for the reason that oil companies deny they had anything to do with it and blame it on people trying to steal the oil. Or, between a fairly corrupt government system and the oil companies, they make a half-hearted attempt at best when an actual cleanup takes place.
I will say that since my first visit in 1997, the level of corruption has dropped dramatically, though it’s been a while since I’ve been on the ground there, and it may have worsened.
Q. At what stage is the Phoenix Project?
A. We have been pretty much under the radar as the government and the oil companies don’t know much about us or what we are doing. For the past four years we’ve been working with various companies and developing a level of confidence in how this technology will work.
Our principal partner is the International Center for Development Affairs in Nigeria, and we’ve identified a few zones where we target and get resources for the first stage, which is the actual cleanup. The goal is a sweet nexus of cleanup and using that biomass to power electricity plants and benefit communities that have never had access to electricity.
Q. What’s the long-term vision?
A. When you first visit Nigeria and other places in West Africa, you are struck by the beauty and the people, but shortly you see the incredible poverty. We want to create an “enterprise community” around the oil spill cleanup process, where the cleanup and associated funds drive the development of both cleanup jobs as well as jobs related to the byproducts of the cleanup, specifically electricity, biochar and biofuels.
Because this tackles poverty with an economic development model that could end up to be carbon neutral, I think it’s a no-brainer.
Once we have a proven model, the net cost should be somewhere in the range of $2 million per zone, before calculating in revenues from most of the byproducts. While only the real thing will allow us to be sure, we are confident that after Zone One, the process should be self-sustaining – as long as there are funds available for the cleanup.
Q. Why is more not being done with the oil money in Nigeria?
A. An oil cleanup fund exists, and the oil companies say they contribute to it, but very little of that fund actually goes toward cleaning up these spills. The systematic impact is institutionalized corruption and increased radicalization.
The average person in the Niger Delta doesn’t see the benefits of oil wealth, but they are deeply hurt by having their natural fishing grounds and farming areas for agriculture overwhelmed by the environmental destruction.
Osita Aniemeka, our director of Nigerian operations, believes that this approach is consistent with Nigeria’s new emphasis on its agricultural sector. This can create jobs and ventures that empower women and young people who are particularly vulnerable to the economic woes brought on by these devastating and continuing oil spills.
Q. What did you learn as a politician that helps you now?
A. I am a “recovering” politician who served in the New Hampshire Senate in a different time (1988-1994). I worked across the aisle with others to create a Senate of meritocracy, with committee chairs of different parties, and the goal was to build consensus to solve problems and not point fingers of blame.
With what’s happening in Nigeria and West Africa, it’s hard not to get angry with oil companies. But it’s not going to do any good if they aren’t part of the solution.