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Shell, Let’s go clean Nigeria!

Nigeria: Oil Spills, Natural Gas Flares, and Bunkering

By Mohammed Hamid Mohammed: March 01, 2011.

The big banner, imitating thick oozing oil, hung from the façade of Shell Headquarters in the Hague, Netherlands. It read: “Shell, let’s go clean Nigeria!”, and was put up by activists on January 26, 2011 – the date the Dutch parliament scheduled a hearing to examine what Amnesty International and environmental groups alleged was the extremely hazardous environmental practices of the company. Shell simply denied the accusations, and went as far as declining to pay the rather small $100 million dollars a Nigeria court slapped on it as compensation for victims.

There are no agreements as to the causes, amount, and damages of oil spills or natural gas flares in the West African country that exports more than a million barrels a day to the United States. Unofficial estimates state that total oil spills over the last few years dwarf the devastating effects of the offshore spills in the Gulf of Mexico. And while public rage forced both the U.S. government to take swift actions in capping the well, as well as the resignation of BP’s CEO, there has been little attention paid to Nigeria’s oil problem. Few in the West are aware of the oil-soaked fields, contaminated lakes, and the ever smoky skies that, for years, dramatically reduced the life expectancy of the impoverished Niger Delta — home to millions of people. Although Shell blames vandalism and theft for most of the spills, some of the aging pipelines still in use were built as far back as the 1960s, which is beyond the industry standard of fifteen years.

Known as the Oil Rivers for its plentiful production of palm oil, the Niger Delta now produces most of Nigeria’s fossil oil. Administered as a British Oil Protectorate between 1885 and 1893, and then as the Niger Coast Protectorate, the region covers 700,000 square kilometers in Southern Nigeria, with a current population of thirty one million. Forty ethnic groups speaking 250 dialects claim the area as their home.

The discovery of oil in the Delta coincided with Nigeria’s approaching independence from British colonial occupation in the late 1950s. From the very beginning, oil revenue funded a series of military regimes in close partnership with multinationals like the Royal Dutch Shell. Very little trickled down to the inhabitants of the Delta. In fact, Nigeria’s oil failed to bring any meaningful development to the most populous country in Africa, despite the booms of the 1970s and 1980s.

The oil wells and poorly-maintained infrastructure waste a significant amount of oil; and they also wreak considerable damage to the environment. Every year, for example, Nigeria loses 2.5 billion dollars worth of natural gas — amounting to forty percent of the consumption of the entire African continent — to flares that have become permanent fixtures in the Delta, burning unchecked and filling the sky with heavy smoke. Regardless of new oil extraction techniques and concerns for serious environmental impacts, negligible effort is exerted to inject the associated gas (AG) back into the ground, or store it safely.

The illegal business of bunkering, or oil theft, is another phenomenon that besets the Nigerian oil industry and accounts for the loss of billions of dollars a year, according to Shell. Opportunistic gangsters explode or drill holes into oil pipes, selling the crude in Eastern European black markets without regard to additional spills, dangerous fire, or risks to human life. A few even go to the extent of stealing from the oil wells directly, often within full knowledge of corrupt government official (an example of this was the court-marshalling of two Nigerian Navy Rear Admirals, in 2006).

Decades of spills and constant choking smoke are increasingly rendering the Delta inhabitable. The population has born the brunt of oil spills without any benefit, and growing outrage has led to clashes with the Government of Nigeria. Several protests have been crushed violently, resulting in the deaths of many people and the bulldozing of scores of villages. One such high-profile associated case was the arrest and tragic death of the Nigerian playwright and Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Ken Saro-Wiwa. Over the years, simmering resentment has given rise to militant rebel organizations. These groups have begun kidnapping expatriate oil engineers and organizing sabotage, currently making the Niger Delta one of the most dangerous places in the world.


As Libya slides into the brink of instability and the fate of the Middle East is becoming alarmingly elusive, the price of oil continues to soar. The exploration of much-touted alternative energy sources still remains distant. In the context of the tense political landscape and uncertain energy future, it might seem less tenable to talk about ethical oil sourcing. However, the silence surrounding the sub-standard practices of oil production in Africa cannot be allowed to continue. Speaking against oil spills, contamination of water, and destruction of farmlands can no longer be left to vocal activists, either. The T.V. cameras that brought us images of gushing oil and the excruciating agonies faced by residents of the Gulf of Mexico — which spurred the immediate response of the U.S. Government –have to yet train their lenses on the colossal calamities unraveling every day in the Niger Delta.

It is tempting to put all of the blame on oil companies. Of course, they have played key roles in the deterioration of the environment in many countries and, undoubtedly, they should pay their share to reverse the immense harm their activities have inflicted on the environment. Governments should also take firm action and ensure the resources of their nations are properly put to use, without abuse by anyone. The most important issue, however, pertains to the creation of better international production and consumption standards strictly enforced by global entities. Without a concerted global intervention — including hefty fines — millions will continue to sacrifice their livelihoods to satisfy our compulsive dependence on oil, as the environmental effects continue to worsen and affect us globally.
Mohammed Mohammed is the Africas Regional Editor for Foreign Policy Digest.

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