Oil Production in the Niger Delta is a Double-Edged Sword


United Nations Environment Programme

The Niger Delta has been a crude oil gold mine for companies in the oil industry since Royal Dutch Shell discovered the first oil field in Nigerian swamps in 1956. Since then, oil production has been the driving force for the Nigerian economy, comprising nearly 80 percent of its government revenues. Though seemingly beneficial, this oil production has caused pollution which has created devastating economic and environmental issues for the country. This is especially true for the Ogoni people, a community in the southeast of the Niger Delta basin, who have felt the full effects of these issues. The effects of these environmental tragedies have been absolutely catastrophic for Ogoniland and the surrounding communities. With the massive Shell spills in 2008, the turmoil was only exacerbated.

As of 2006, 11 oil corporations extract from the Niger Delta. The delta’s oil industry is the main catalyst for economic development in Nigeria, yet it has made the delta one of the five most severely petroleum-damaged ecosystems in the world. From 1976 to 2000, a reported 7,000 oil spills across 2,000 different production sites have damaged various fishing and farming industries in the Niger Delta.

Oil pollution seriously escalated in 2008 and 2009, when Shell admitted to spilling 600,000 barrels of oil from a ruptured pipeline into the surrounding creeks of the Niger Delta. In September of 2008, the pipeline’s rupture spilled as much as 2,000 barrels of oil per day until its repair in November. One month later, the pipeline broke again. No one from Shell was sent to fix it until February of 2009. These spills add to the 13 million gallons of oil that have been spilled into the Niger Delta since 1956, twice the amount spilled by British Petroleum in what was deemed by many as the worst environmental disaster in United States history.

In 2011, The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) produced a study co-funded by Shell that took 4,000 samples of soil, fish and air in Ogoniland and thoroughly investigated 69 of the many hundreds of oil spills that have occurred over the past 50 years. In one community, the researchers discovered that Ogoni families had been consuming water contaminated with carcinogen levels that were 900 times the recommended levels.

In August of 2017, the UNEP released a statement about the report, noting that “In at least 10 Ogoni communities where drinking water is contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons, public health is seriously threatened.” Calling it the world’s “most wide ranging and long-term oil clean-up,” they estimated that the clean-up would take 30 years and an investment of $1 billion to complete.

Some have pointed fingers at Shell for the horrifying data reported in the UNEP study. Amnesty International’s Global Issues Director, Audrey Gaughran, said “there is no solution to the oil pollution in Niger Delta as long as Shell continues to focus on protecting its corporate image at the expense of the truth, and at the expense of justice.” Even with the allegations against Shell and the fact that over 1,000 of the spill cases have been filed against them, the oil powerhouse has claimed little responsibility.

In some cases, Shell argues that the Niger Delta has been a very dangerous place to send people because criminal gangs have had a history of holding employees and contractors for ransom. In other cases, Shell has avoided responsibility by claiming that 98 percent of its spills are due to the vandalism and sabotage of pipelines by native militants. These arguments carry some weight due to the insurgency that has plagued the area for some time.

In the past 15 years, many militant groups have surfaced and attacked wells and pipelines in an attempt to seize control of the oil wealth in the region. Some groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta have resorted to kidnapping oil workers and oilmen for ransom. Despite these assertions, efforts to force Shell to compensate for the damages have been ineffective because they only result in small fines and the compensation money doesn’t get back to the communities in need.

A small victory for the Ogoniland communities finally came in 2015 when Shell reached an out-of-court settlement to pay out $83 million to communities that were affected by the two oil spills in 2008. About 15,000 individual community members from Bodo were awarded $3,250 each as compensation. One year later, another victory came; plans were set to launch the $1 billion clean-up operation. The plan involved the construction of factories that would cleanse the contaminated soil, while also replanting the damaged mangroves.

Amnesty International Campaigner Joe Westby indicated that these lofty promises were not new. He stated that “[The Ogoni] have a right to be skeptical, they have seen clean-ups promised and people paid to do the work in the past, only for little improvements to be delivered.” As of April, the government has taken action on an Ogoni cleanup timetable, promising that all paperwork had been submitted and that the process is irreversible. But Westby’s claim seems to linger in the minds of the Ogoni as their society is continuously overrun by the harmful effects of the pollution to this day.

Some have blamed the strife on the Nigerian government’s lack of scrutiny when regulating Shell’s oil production. Saatah Nubari, an activist in the region, claimed that “you wouldn’t even blame Shell, they are been propped up by a state that sees foreign corporations as saviours. The weakness of the Nigerian state is the main reason why Shell can even be nonchalant in the first place.” The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People shared similar sentiments, arguing that the government is valuing the survival of oil corporations over their demands for the fair treatment for the Ogoni people.

Regardless of where the responsibility lies, long-term effects of the spills continue to hurt the Ogoniland communities. Before the spills, one Ogoni fisherman’s daughter shared that her father used to walk ten minutes from their house to catch food for the day. Now, he is forced to take three-month long trips to fish and sell his goods at ports that are far away. A member of the Ogoni community, Gloria Dinabari, describes the problem, saying that, “The fish ingest the oil. No matter how many times you wash the fish, you cannot take the crude oil out. That is what we buy. That is what we eat.”

Clean water to use for cooking and drinking is a constant problem because 90 percent of the underground water is not fit for human use due to oil spillage. Researchers also found that babies are twice as likely to die in their first month if their mother lived close to an oil spill prior to conception. The babies are especially vulnerable because they have not yet developed defenses for the toxic chemicals introduced by the pollution in their bodies. This research and testimony from the Ogoni people offer just a glimpse of how severely their livelihood has been neglected and the marginalized position Ogoniland has been left in.

For the Ogoniland community, the question remains as to whether the Nigerian government and respective oil companies will fully activate their plan soon enough to address the billowing social and environmental effects that ravage Ogoni communities every day. No matter the solution, this problem requires swift and effective action to improve the livelihood of innocent Ogoni people.

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