The Oil Spills That Went Largely Unreported

On October 11 of this year, four Nigerian farmers sat in court in The Hague, The Netherlands alongside fellow plaintiff, the environmental group Friends of the Earth, after having sued Shell to demand clean-up of and compensation for pollution in the Niger Delta. Though it was the first time a European company was brought to court in Europe for damages caused abroad, it was hardly the first time a major multinational oil company was caught severely polluting the Niger Delta. 

According to an independent team of experts from Nigeria, the UK and the United States convened by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, at least9 to 13 million barrels of crude oil spilled in the Niger Delta between 1956 and 2006[1]. To put this figure into perspective, the much more publicized 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska released into the ocean approximately 4.9 million and 257,000 barrels, respectively. The financial cost of the environmental damage caused by oil and gas activities in the Delta region is estimated to run in the tens of billions of dollars.

Since 2006 there have been several new incidents, further polluting the area that is already one of the five most severely petroleum damaged eco systems in the world[2] due to the detrimental effects on water ways and marine systems, residents, fishing, forests and agricultural lands.. Just last August, an oil spill near an Exxon Mobil oilfield spread along the shore killing fish the locals rely upon for their survival. The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, installed by the Nigerian government, recorded 2,405 incidents between 2006 and 2010, an average of about 600 per year. That number fits with the long-term trend of ever increasing oil spill incidents in the West-African country[3].

Besides the obvious environmental degradation, the ongoing disaster has taken its toll on the health of Nigerians living in the Delta region too, cutting their average life spans short by twenty years and destroying the fish industry. The crisis, therefore, is not only an environmental but also a human rights issue. However, the culprits are not taking their responsibility, claiming sabotage and theft by locals are causing the devastating spills. One would think that if the locals were causing an average of 600 spills a year – or a new spill every 14 hours – it would be hard for the big oil companies to make a profit, though.

It remains to be seen whether or not justice will be done for those who are witnessing the ongoing devastation of their habitat, their health and their livelihoods. What has become painfully clear so far is that despite the magnitude of the disaster, mainstream (Western) media have not been willing to give the crisis the kind of coverage it deserves. Moreover, the Nigerian government has done little to protect the Nigerian people from the negative consequences of oil and gas extraction. Needless to say, the people of the largest oil producer in Africa are not getting much, if any, of the $140 billion in estimated annual oil revenues either. In fact, Nigeria’s GDP per capita ranks 178th in the world while the human development index puts the country in 156th place, only two places above poverty stricken Haiti and thirteen places above Sudan, notorious for its continuing human rights crisis. Estimates say seventy percent of the Nigerian population fall below the poverty line. The court in The Hague is expected to deliver a verdict late this year or early in 2013. Hopefully the outcome will prove to be the first step toward bringing the region more than pollution, conflict and poverty from its oil reserves.

[1] Federal Ministry of Environment Abuja, Nigerian Conservation Foundation Lagos, WWF UK and CEESP-IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy, May 31, (2006). Niger Delta Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Project. p.3.

[2] Federal Ministry of Environment Abuja, Nigerian Conservation Foundation Lagos, WWF UK and CEESP-IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy, May 31, (2006). Niger Delta Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Project. p.5.

[3] (2012). Petroleum Technology Development Journal. Oil Spill Control and Management. January 2012, Vol. 1. p.2. Retrieved from  p.3.


2 thoughts on “The Oil Spills That Went Largely Unreported

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