Nigeria’s Agony Dwarfs Gulf Oil Spill

We reached the edge of the oil spill near the Nigerian village of Otuegwe after a long hike through cassava plantations. Ahead of us lay swamp. We waded into the warm tropical water and began swimming, cameras and notebooks held above our heads. We could smell the oil long before we saw it — the stench of garage forecourts and rotting vegetation hanging thickly in the air.

The farther we travelled, the more nauseous it became. Soon we were swimming in pools of light Nigerian crude, the best-quality oil in the world. One of the many hundreds of 40-year-old pipelines that criss-cross the Niger delta had corroded and spewed oil for several months.

Forest and farmland were now covered in a sheen of greasy oil. Drinking wells were polluted and people were distraught. No one knew how much oil had leaked.

“We lost our nets, huts and fishing pots,” said Chief Promise, village leader of Otuegwe and our guide. “This is where we fished and farmed. We have lost our forest. We told Shell of the spill within days, but they did nothing for six months.”

More oil is spilled from the Niger delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico.

That was the Niger delta a few years ago, where, according to Nigerian academics, writers and environment groups, oil companies have acted with such impunity and recklessness that much of the region has been devastated by leaks.

In fact, more oil is spilled from the delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico, the site of a major ecological catastrophe caused by oil that has poured from a leak triggered by the explosion that wrecked BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig last month.

That disaster, which claimed the lives of 11 rig workers, has made headlines round the world. By contrast, little information has emerged about the damage inflicted on the Niger delta. Yet the destruction there provides us with a far more accurate picture of the price we have to pay for drilling oil today.

Leak after spill after leak

On 1 May this year a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline in the state of Akwa Ibom spilled more than a million gallons into the delta over seven days before the leak was stopped. Local people demonstrated against the company but say they were attacked by security guards. Community leaders are now demanding $1 billion in compensation for the illness and loss of livelihood they suffered. Few expect they will succeed. In the meantime, thick balls of tar are being washed up along the coast.

Within days of the Ibeno spill, thousands of barrels of oil were spilled when the nearby Shell Trans Niger pipeline was attacked by rebels. A few days after that, a large oil slick was found floating on Lake Adibawa in Bayelsa state and another in Ogoniland.

“We are faced with incessant oil spills from rusty pipes, some of which are 40 years old,” said Bonny Otavie, a Bayelsa MP.

With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40 percent of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution.

This point was backed by Williams Mkpa, a community leader in Ibeno: “Oil companies do not value our life; they want us to all die. In the past two years, we have experienced 10 oil spills and fishermen can no longer sustain their families. It is not tolerable.”

With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40 percent of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution. Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 years over the past two generations. Locals blame the oil that pollutes their land and can scarcely believe the contrast with the steps taken by BP and the US government to try to stop the Gulf oil leak and to protect the Louisiana shoreline from pollution.

“If this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention,” said the writer Ben Ikari, a member of the Ogoni people. “This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta.”

“The oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care and people must live with pollution daily. The situation is now worse than it was 30 years ago. Nothing is changing. When I see the efforts that are being made in the US, I feel a great sense of sadness at the double standards. What they do in the US or in Europe is very different.”

“We see frantic efforts being made to stop the spill in the US,” said Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth International. “But in Nigeria, oil companies largely ignore their spills, cover them up and destroy people’s livelihood and environments. The Gulf spill can be seen as a metaphor for what is happening daily in the oilfields of Nigeria and other parts of Africa.

“This has gone on for 50 years in Nigeria. People depend completely on the environment for their drinking water and farming and fishing. They are amazed that the president of the US can be making speeches daily, because in Nigeria people there would not hear a whimper,” he said.

Calculations and claims

It is impossible to know how much oil is spilled in the Niger delta each year because the companies and the government keep that secret. However, two major independent investigations over the past four years suggest that as much is spilled at sea, in the swamps and on land every year as has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico so far.

One report, compiled by WWF UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian federal government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, calculated in 2006 that up to 1.5 million tons of oil — 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska — has been spilled in the delta over the past half century. Last year Amnesty calculated that the equivalent of at least 9 million barrels of oil was spilled and accused the oil companies of a human rights outrage.

Up to 1.5 million tons of oil — 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska — has been spilled in the Niger delta over the past half century.

According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites, many going back decades, with thousands of smaller ones still waiting to be cleared up. More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell alone.

Last month Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009. The majority, said the company, was lost through two incidents — one in which the company claims that thieves damaged a well-head at its Odidi field and another where militants bombed the Trans Escravos pipeline.

Shell, which works in partnership with the Nigerian government in the delta, says that 98 percent of all its oil spills are caused by vandalism, theft or sabotage by militants and only a minimal amount by deteriorating infrastructure.

“We had 132 spills last year, as against 175 on average. Safety valves were vandalised; one pipe had 300 illegal taps. We found five explosive devices on one. Sometimes communities do not give us access to clean up the pollution because they can make more money from compensation,” said a spokesman.

“We have a full-time oil spill response team. Last year we replaced 197 miles of pipeline and are using every known way to clean up pollution, including microbes. We are committed to cleaning up any spill as fast as possible and for whatever reason they occur.”

These claims are hotly disputed by communities and environmental watchdog groups. They mostly blame the companies’ vast network of rusting pipes and storage tanks, corroding pipelines, semi-derelict pumping stations and old wellheads, as well as tankers and vessels cleaning out tanks.

Mind-boggling scale

The scale of the pollution is mind-boggling. The government’s national oil spill detection and response agency (Nosdra) says that between 1976 and 1996 alone, more than 2.4 million barrels contaminated the environment.

“Oil spills and the dumping of oil into waterways has been extensive, often poisoning drinking water and destroying vegetation. These incidents have become common due to the lack of laws and enforcement measures within the existing political regime,” said a spokesman for Nosdra.

“In Nigeria, both companies and government have come to treat an extraordinary level of oil spills as the norm,” says Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth International.

The sense of outrage is widespread. “There are more than 300 spills, major and minor, a year,” said Bassey. “It happens all the year round. The whole environment is devastated. The latest revelations highlight the massive difference in the response to oil spills. In Nigeria, both companies and government have come to treat an extraordinary level of oil spills as the norm.”

A spokesman for the Stakeholder Democracy Network in Lagos, which works to empower those in communities affected by the oil companies’ activities, said: “The response to the spill in the United States should serve as a stiff reminder as to how far spill management in Nigeria has drifted from standards across the world.”

Above the law

Other voices of protest point out that the world has overlooked the scale of the environmental impact. Activist Ben Amunwa, of the London-based oil watch group Platform, said: “Deepwater Horizon may have exceed Exxon Valdez, but within a few years in Nigeria offshore spills from four locations dwarfed the scale of the Exxon Valdez disaster many times over. Estimates put spill volumes in the Niger delta among the worst on the planet, but they do not include the crude oil from waste water and gas flares. Companies such as Shell continue to avoid independent monitoring and keep key data secret.”

“Major spills are likely to increase in the coming years as the industry strives to extract oil from increasingly remote and difficult terrains,” says an industry insider.

Worse may be to come. One industry insider, who asked not to be named, said: “Major spills are likely to increase in the coming years as the industry strives to extract oil from increasingly remote and difficult terrains. Future supplies will be offshore, deeper and harder to work. When things go wrong, it will be harder to respond.”

Judith Kimerling, a professor of law and policy at the City University of New York and author of Amazon Crude, a book about oil development in Ecuador, said: “Spills, leaks and deliberate discharges are happening in oilfields all over the world and very few people seem to care.”

There is an overwhelming sense that the big oil companies act as if they are beyond the law. Bassey said: “What we conclude from the Gulf of Mexico pollution incident is that the oil companies are out of control.

“It is clear that BP has been blocking progressive legislation, both in the US and here. In Nigeria, they have been living above the law. They are now clearly a danger to the planet. The dangers of this happening again and again are high. They must be taken to the international court of justice.”

Copyright The Guardian. All rights reserved.



John Vidal

Environment EditorThe Guardian

John Vidal is the Guardian’s environment editor. He joined the paper in 1995 after working for Agence France Presse, North Wales Newspapers and the Cumberland News. He is the author of McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial (1998) and has contributed chapters to books on topics such as the Gulf war, new Europe and development.

Join the Discussion

  • AlanZulch

    I hope this article is widely seen as it just proves the point that for change to happen, all too often the wake-up call among those who have the power to do something has to be right under our own noses. Otherwise, ‘out of sight, out of mind’. And out of mind appears to be our collective state as we continue to commit ecocide to support our petroleum addiction.It is harsh, but I can’t help but draw a parallel between the German people in WWII averting their eyes to the atrocities taking place as they went about their status quo, and our modern societies doing all we can to rationalize, ignore or otherwise collude with the ecological holocaust that is taking place in our name around the world. Just so long as its NIMBY then I can go about my business.Clearly two trajectories are occurring simultaneously: emergence – the increased awareness facilitated by new technologies and globalized media – and entropy – the dissolution of old structures and institutions based on obsolete ideas. I’m grateful to all, such as the author of this piece, for helping pry open the gates so we can know the truth of these previously hidden or forgotten or ignored places.

    • Mhburnham

      Thank you Alan for your comments. I had not an inkling this was going on in Nigeria and other African nations. I don’t own a car and commute by bus. Sometimes it’s a drag. But reading this article about what’s been going on in Nigeria, suddenly all the cars I see passing me by as I stand waiting for the bus–I feel like I want to start carrying a big ‘shame on you for driving’ sign as I wait for the bus each day. It brings home in such a major way that our whole way of life here in the US comes only at the expense of human life and environment somewhere else in the world.

      • Thank you for your comment also Mh. It’s funny that you mention your
        feelings toward cars these days. I also don’t own a car but bike
        instead, and reading all that I read for my work here at Our World
        2.0 about the effect of emissions and the planet’s dwindling fossil
        fuels, I too sometimes find myself enraged at drivers. It really is
        sad (and frustrating) that so many are totally and completely
        oblivious to the atrocities. Perhaps you’re on to something with the
        sign idea and would happily wear one on my back as I commute by bike
        (if it were safe/practical, like a marathon-runner’s number vest,
        perhaps?) We need to start thinking creatively to find the powerful
        signposts that will point people to a better future.

        • Hi Carol,
          Here in New Zealand you can get a “0ne less car” backpack cover and jacket.
          I walk to work but I wouldn’t mind wearing one myself!

          • That’s fabulous stuff. And yes, you should get one – walking counts too!

        • justin_beaver

          The t-shirt idea is a great idea. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most effective.

      • Wijnanda Jacoby

        hello instead of “shame on you for driving a car we should say “shame on US government and people for still not having other means of energy.Already in 1970 the car companies had models but people and govt did not persue. The people of the USA are cheap and very SELFISH!!!They really do not care to know about GMO crops or suffering of animals either. This will all be delivered in a big bill from the universe and wars and disasters will fall upon us,they already do.The last 30 years have been typically brutal. The baby boomers have sold out this country totally in every aspect. I also do not own a car but I am retired.Working people have no change with the public transportation here,except in New York city. Wynanda Jacoby

    • We are all as guilty as the everyday Germans during WWII. We read articles like this and about Darfur, Somalia, Congo, Kosovo, and speak out, perhaps unlike the Germans, because we are less repressed, but where do our words go? How do you speak truth to power holding a poisoned spear or bribed by cartels or convinced that raping virgins will cure AIDS?
      Righting wrongs is made of firmer stuff.
      We just haven’t evolved the correct technique against such violent abuse of the environment or terrorism in general. I can’t help but this it’s too late anyway. The ecology worldwide is so damaged.

      • It seems unfair and irrelevant to use WWII Germany as an analogy for the general apathy and immobility to act and one starts to wonder why Germany? then why not Turkey, Israel, USA or even Japan? It also runs the risk of reducing action to being one thing.What is happening in Nigeria seems more entrenched in the traditions of Colonialism – oil moguls exploiting the resources of what is perceived to be a third world country while the inhabitants of that country are left victims to that exploitation. Perhaps the issue here is not that we don’t act but, as stated already by others, it is a question about bringing more awareness about these situations to the general public. There is a reason why the situation in Nigeria goes unreported while the gulf situation is constantly in the news. It’s timely that the new Our World 2.0 debate asks questions about how social media can save the planet. My question is how can forms of social media raise social and ecological awareness? And also what might these forms involve or look like, after all isn’t the ability to ‘act’ a multifaceted and complex thing that is specific to individual humans in their experiences?

  • Aaron

    According to the DOE, it is not true that the “Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports”. It is ranked #5 after Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Venezuela.

    • ed

      its actually less than 5 percent….still, its sad that this is going on

  • BrendanBarrett

    A UNU colleague kindly provided this link to a document from IIED entitled Access to Sustainable Energy: What role for the international oil and gas companies – Focus on Nigeria.

  • marknotaras

    Well at least Shell has apologised for all their indiscretions (hint hint to BP). Here is what they write:

    Dear Reader,

    Royal Dutch Shell is extremely proud to be the first international petrochemical company to publicly say:

    We are sorry.

    Our Board of Directors, in cooperation with Shell’s newly established Ethical Affairs Committee, has just in time come to the conclusion that Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta need to be subject to a serious, thorough and humbling re-evaluation.

    We therefore promise that we shall:

    * Make our public commitments to the environment and human rights a
    * Monitor the social and human rights impact of all our operations;
    * Disclose information and undertake respectful consultation with affected communities;
    * Clean up all the pollution we have caused in the Niger Delta.

    The measures shall be effective immediately. A more comprehensive plan of action will be presented at Shell’s Annual General Meeting on Tuesday May 18 in The Hague.

    We look forward to apologising some more then!

    Bradford Houppe
    Vice-President of the Ethical Affairs Committee
    Royal Dutch Shell

    • guest

      I can’t tell if this is a joke or not. The people in white sweaters spelling out the word “SORRY” with their bodies is a bit much.

    • Wijnanda Jacoby

      Being Dutch I am glad the Shell finally sees its errors and will clean up after itself but it took the BP disaster here in the Gulf of Mexico to get a reaction????and will they really follow up. The profits are in the billions .The whole set up of stockholders etc etc makes for greedy people and corporations. I hope the Queen will be involved in these discussions she should have been a long time ago.Shame on the Netherlands as much as ALL companies who run the world like colonies.Wijnanda Jacoby

  • guest
  • Ganiyuapril

    I like this, they should be told.

  • Tex2300

    here in belgium is the documentary for the second time,i ‘ll spread the word.

  • Fire In The Freezer

    I rarely drive, but if I do… I will never go to a shell station again.

  • Is it actual worth pointing out the reality that in Nigerian
    illegal tapping into oil pipe lines , is a major issue that leads to
    leaks and sometime major explosion as the very photo used in this
    article shows. In addition pumping stations are attack which also leads
    to leaks. In short he claims to care about the leaks but fails to
    address how they are actual caused , while his total ignorance of the
    massive corruption in Nigerian , that scales into tens of billions and
    lies behind most of the problem seen. Merely means that this article is just about attacking the oil
    companies and doing nothing about the problem, for let?s be clear they
    only make money for oil they sell , they make nothing for that which is
    lost. Therefore, if they are really the evil corporations some would like to believe than will do what makes money.

  • Cyndysub

    Gulf Oils 84 million “Donation” is very cheap for the Oil giant. It should have been 10 Billion to make these oil companies pay for damages and send a strong undeniable message to oil companies to be responsible for their actions instead of getting off with a pat on the back of their hand. BP has wrecked the gulf and got off with a paltry sum.BP should have to pay at least 100 Billion for all of the damage done to the gulf. Fight back buy an electric car and a photovoltaic panel to charge it with.

  • Cyndysub

    Promote the Move To Amend cause to take the first step in a journey toward fighting this insanity.

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