Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Other Nine (Thousand) Oil Spills – BP and the Gulf Spill and Exxon, Chevron and Shell in Nigeria

Women in the Niger Delta beside an oil spill in 2009, which began in 2004 (source - Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR via an Amnesty International report on oil pollution in the Niger Delta = (1))

Americans have suffered from the BP spill – but only a fraction of what Nigerians have suffered for decades – and continue to suffer today. The problem isn’t one bad company – BP is no worse than any other oil firm - the problem is that big firms have been allowed to buy influence with governments leading to poor regulation; coupled with experimental drilling at depths never attempted before in order to try to maintain an oil based society and economy. Unless all governments regulate all oil companies better, this is going to happen over and over again.

BP certainly bear responsibility for the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and for using toxic chemical dispersants even worse than the slick itself.

However the idea that BP is a uniquely bad oil company, while American oil companies are more responsible, is nonsense.

Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and other oil companies based everywhere from the US to France, Italy and the UK have created thousands of oil spills both on and offshore in the Niger Delta in Nigeria for decades – and right up to present.

There have been 2,400 oil spills in the Niger Delta in the last 4 years, many involving Exxon-Mobil. Between 1970 and 2000 the Nigerian government’s figure was 7,000 oil spills, with more independent analysts putting the figure higher, at around 300 every year. The amount spilled by 2006 was estimated at at least 1.5 million tonnes (2) – (4).

When people there who are drinking polluted water and who can’t catch fish or birds to survive because the delta and marshes they live in are polluted by oil spills complain their government doesn’t fine the oil companies and demand they do something about it, as it has in the US (5).

Instead any opposition or complaint from the locals has resulted in oil companies calling in the Nigerian military who have been killing their opponents – peaceful or armed - for decades, often partly paid by and equipped by the oil companies – and transported on helicopters provided by the oil companies. This has resulted in armed rebellions, hijackings of oil rigs and kidnapping of oil company staff, both by rebels and by armed gangs.

Some oil companies, including Shell and Chevron, have even supplied the Nigerian military and police with weapons and helicopters with which to kill their opponents – whether armed rebels or peaceful campaigners like Ken Saro Wiwa, notoriously executed by the Nigerian government for campaigning against pollution, with Shell lawyers refusing to call for clemency when the decision was being made (6).

Ken Saro-Wiwa, a peaceful campaigner for the Ogoni people against oil pollution by Shell, was executed by the Nigerian military - Shell lawyers refused to ask for clemency

The only way many of the people of the, now grossly polluted, Niger Delta can survive is to cut into oil pipelines and drain off oil for sale or barter, or else join armed gangs extorting money for kidnapped hostages. They often die in explosions in the process. On 18th October 1999 300 people burned alive near the town of Jesse , due to such an explosion and the spread of fires to nearby villages. This was one of the largest death tolls, but not unusual.

Gas flaring in the Niger Delta - source - Chidi Anyaeche - Nigeria Village Square

The Ogoni , Ijaw and other peoples of the Niger Delta have had their agricultural land made infertile and their fishing grounds destroyed by pollution from oil pipelines for decades. They have been forced out of their villages by threats and attacks by the Nigerian military to make way for these pipelines. These attacks are routinely described by the Nigerian military as ‘inter-tribal disputes’ (7) - (8).  Hundreds of them “disappear”every year after military and police raids.

On May 25th 1998 one-hundred and twenty one student activists from 42 delta communities carried out a peaceful occupation of an offshore Chevron oil facility in protest against environmental destruction. They were promised a meeting with a Chevron officials at the end of May to discuss their grievances. On May 28th Chevron helicopters ferried Nigerian soldiers to the platform. These soldiers proceeded to gun down two activists, wounded others and removed the rest. On January 4th 1999 Nigerian police and soldiers equipped with a Chevron helicopter and Chevron boats attacked and burned the Ijaw villages of Opiah and Ikenyan in Delta state , killing at least 4 people and wounding others (9) – (10).

Amnesty International reported that during 2009 “The Security forces, including the military, continued to commit human rights violations in the Niger Delta including extra-judicial executions, torture and...the destruction of homes.......the Joint Task Force (JTF) which combines troops of the army, navy, air force and...police, frequently raided communities. Such raids often followed clashes between the JTF and militants, often resulting in the death of bystanders.” (11)

The conflict is often reported as involving “kidnappers” trying to extort money from oil firms, just as there’s much crowing every time a Somalian pirate is shot by the US or Russian navy, or by Israeli security guards on private shipping, without much reflection on the causes of the piracy – a civil war resulting from a dictatorship backed by both the US and USSR throughout the Cold War; US , French and British backing for an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia when one side in the civil war seemed to have one; illegal fishing by trawlers from all over the world in Somalian waters; and illegal dumping of nuclear waste and other pollutants by firms based in the “developed”.

Although Nigeria has had an elected government since 1998 the close relationship between oil and arms companies and the Nigerian military and government remains.

The fact that American firms are responsible for massive oil spills in Nigeria hasn’t stopped American Senators loudly announcing that Halliburton and Exxon-Mobil have told them that they would never be as irresponsible as BP though – Halliburton and it’s subsidiaries of course being so responsible that they were found to have repeatedly grossly over-charged the US military for fuel and supplies in Iraq on a scale that might make the Afghan government blush – and even to have tried to cover up the gang rape of one of it’s employees. That’s not to mention the fact that Halliburton was contracted by BP to seal the oil well which then caused the spill in the Gulf (12) – (15).

The truth is that this is not a case of one uniquely bad company. BP is no better or worse than other oil companies. It, like them, is the product of a system which allows it to buy political influence and deregulation of it’s industry. It’s a case of poor regulation by governments as a result of oil companies buying political influence – and of the risks of drilling for oil at greater depths than has ever been done before, using experimental technology, to try to meet ever increasing demand for oil. Until governments and the public face up to that and people demand much stricter regulation of all oil companies, plus more investment in other energy technologies and reduction in waste of energy, nothing will change.

It’s also the truth that however bad many people in Florida and other states affected by the spill have it, they don’t have it nearly as bad as Nigerians have it – often at the hands of American based oil firms. So it’s no good pretending this is a problem with one company or with foreigners.

The one good side-effect of the Gulf of Mexico spill is that it’s started to raise some questions about these wider issues and the suffering of Nigerians, Colombians and others.

Forming a posse to lynch the furreners and cheer on the good ol’ American oil giants seems to be popular in America right now. It’s not going to stop it happening all over again though.

(1) = Amnesty International 30 Jun 2009 'Oil industry has brought poverty and pollution to Niger Delta'

(2) = Reuters 15 Jun 2010 'Nigeria cautions Exxon Mobil on offshore oil spills',

(3) = BBC News 15 Jun 2010 ‘Nigeria: 'World oil pollution capital'’,

(4) = Independent 26 Oct 2006 'Niger Delta bears brunt after 50 years of oil spills',

(5) = See (1) above

(6) = Human Rights Watch The Price of Oil HRW , New York & London , 1999;especially p174-5,

(7) = Human Rights Watch The Price of Oil HRW , New York & London , 1999,

(8) = Catma Productions The Drilling Fields Channel 4 (London) , 23rd May 1994,; full transcript at

(9) = PACIFICA RADIO/Democracy Now 21 Jun 2001  ‘Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria's Oil Dictatorship’,

(10) =  Human Rights Watch press release Oil Companies complicit in Nigerian abuses Lagos ,Feb 23rd , 1999,

(11) = Amnesty International annual report 2010 – Country Report – Nigeria,

(12) = BBC News 13 Dec 2003 ‘Bush warns 'oil overcharge' firm’,

(13) = Observer 22 Feb 2004 ‘Of Halliburton and the mis-spent millions’,

(14) = ABC News 10 Dec 2007 ‘Victim: Gang-Rape Cover-Up by U.S., Halliburton/KBR’,

(15) = BBC News 13 Jun 2010 ‘Halliburton profits up despite oil spill’,

1 comment:

James Nelson said...

Good post Duncan, which reflects my own views. See: