The disastrous BP oil spill is now believed to be the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Even worse than Exxon Valdez. Exxon Valdez stirs up strong memories. Who can forget the images of birds covered in black oil slick? Imagine an Exxon Valdez happening every year for 50 years. Pretty unimaginable.
Yet, this is what residents of Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta have been living with for the last 50 years.
“Dead fish and oily water are part of daily life for Niger Delta residents, as are gas flares.”
Experts estimate that some 13 million barrels of oil have been spilt in the Niger Delta since oil exploration began in 1958. This is the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every year for 50 years.
Although the Obama administration has come under much criticism for not responding quickly enough, nor adequately, to the BP oil spill, there is no denying that top government officials, including the president himself, have felt compelled to speak about the spill and to insist that BP will be held accountable.
How differently things play out in Nigeria. Not only does the Nigerian government usually not bother to issue statements, it never feels compelled to decry such spills.
Even more striking, perhaps, is the very different ways in which the international media deals with oil spills. Of course, it is entirely appropriate that the U.S. media have been giving constant coverage to the BP Gulf spill.
But it is not just the U.S. media that have been covering the Gulf disaster with great dedication. Media around the world are covering the Gulf oil spill in a way that not even the Nigerian media covers oil spills in Nigeria.
I would be willing to bet that even residents of the smallest Nigerian villages have heard about the Gulf oil spill. By contrast, I know few people in the United States who have heard about the oil spills in the Niger Delta. Yet Nigeria is among the top five suppliers of oil to the U.S.
The Niger Delta, which is home to more than 30 million people and is considered one of the world’s most important ecosystems, produces almost all of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings.
Dead fish and oily water are part of daily life for Niger Delta residents, as are gas flares. Some middle-aged Niger Delta residents have never had a night of total darkness. There is a law against gas flaring in Nigeria, but it continues to be widely breached.
Oil companies operate in Nigeria with little or no oversight from the government. It must be noted that the government has part ownership in the subsidiaries of all the oil multinationals which operate in Nigeria.
A year ago, Amnesty International published a report, “Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta.” The report focused on Royal Dutch Shell because Shell is by far the largest operator in the Delta. According to the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, a 10-year study commissioned by Greenpeace, although Shell operates in more than 100 countries, 40 percent of all its oil spills happen in Nigeria. That’s simply staggering.
The Greenpeace and Amnesty reports tell of spills that had been continuous for years and many that had never been cleaned up (despite claims by Shell to the contrary).
According to the Amnesty report, “Oil spills, waste dumping and gas flaring are notorious and endemic in the Niger Delta.” Residents of the Niger Delta “have to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water, and eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins.” The fish that is not polluted is killed by the oil and toxins, making earning a livelihood impossible for many who depended on the sale of fish.
Shell’s response has been that most of the oil spillage is due to sabotage and vandalism. While acknowledging that theft and vandalism are sometimes to blame for the oil spills, Amnesty insists that the oil companies are to blame for the vast majority of spills.
Experts predict that as oil companies turn increasingly to the deep ocean and other difficult environments to get oil, more leaks are likely.
The pattern in Nigeria also points in the direction of increasing spills. In 2008, Shell reported double the amount of spills in 2007; in 2009 it reported double the spills in 2008.
Interviewed by one television station, BP CEO Tony Howard offered a hollow-sounding apology, then quickly added, “I’d like my life back.” When big oil spills happen, ordinary people rarely get their lives back.Anene Ejikeme is on the faculty at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.