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US oil spill a disaster — but more oil is spilt in Nigeria every year

One small positive that may come out of the Deepwater Horizon spill is the slender beam of reflected light cast on the fascinating, tragic story of oil drilling in the Niger Delta.

On Sunday The Observer rather stunningly announced that “more oil is spilled from the Delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico”. Given the scale and longevity of the disaster in Nigeria the disparity in publicity is troubling.

Under normal circumstances it would be easy to peg the general global apathy shown towards the Niger Delta situation up to the usual melange of ignorance and casual racism, which allows us to ignore so many other disasters in the developing world. But this case is different. We should hear more about Nigeria — and make no mistake in the coming decades we will — because Nigeria means oil.

In West and Central Africa, Nigeria is a superpower, with a population of more than 150 million. Staggeringly for a country where the vast majority of the population make a living out of agriculture, up to 90% of Nigeria’s GDP comes from its hydrocarbon. More importantly for the global economy, 40% of United States crude oil imports come from Nigeria. Ironically, although perhaps not unexpectedly, Nigeria’s massive oil wealth seems to actually be contributing to regional instability.

For at least the past 20 years the Niger Delta has been ravaged by armed conflict between government, militias and oil companies over oil rights and compensation for environmental devastation. In 1994, oil-related violence in the region was so bad that state forces were found to have executed at least 2000 civilians, and up to 100,000 people were left homeless. Since then life in the Delta seems to have settled into a steady cycle of stabilised lawlessness, punctuated by occasional bouts of violent government retribution.

It will come as no surprise that the origins and minutiae of this conflict are devilishly complicated, but at their core they can be reduced to two points. Residents of the Niger Delta want a larger share of the wealth generated by the oil in their backyard, and they want to be compensated for the environmental damage caused, which results from commercial oil operations. Imagine the amount of oil spilled in the infamous Exxon-Valdez disaster, and then think the same amount of oil has been leaked in the Niger Delta every single year (on average) for the past 50 years. It is understandable that a fair bit of resentment has built up.

The Nigerian government relies on revenue from commercial oil for its viability. It is in no position to make the kind of demands that the Obama Administration has made in recent weeks. As Obama suspends offshore oil exploration in the United States, jeopardising his promise to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, pressure on Nigeria is only likely to increase.

Two weeks ago Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathon signed a $US23 billion deal with China to build three new oil refineries (at present Nigeria imports 85% of its refined fuel). Negotiations over increased Chinese access to Nigerian oil exports are ongoing.

The situation in the Niger Delta has long been intolerable for the local population. It seems likely that a global economy reliant on a stable oil supply will find the Nigerian situation increasingly hard to ignore.

10
  • 1
    Sexual Lobster
    Posted Tuesday, 1 June 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I must admit I have never heard of this, thank you for bringing this appalling situation to my attention.

  • 2
    Posted Tuesday, 1 June 2010 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Happens to black and brown folk therefore not worth knowing. Cheers.

  • 3
    merlot64
    Posted Wednesday, 2 June 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    More blood is spilled as well - here is a link to the Guardian’s coverage of the links between Shell and the execution of author Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian government in 1995.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2009/jun/10/guardian-coverage-of-saro-wiwa-story

  • 4
    David McRae
    Posted Wednesday, 2 June 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    What Sexual Lobster said - I had no idea.

  • 5
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Wednesday, 2 June 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Something else that people may not know is that, globally, about as much crude oil seeps out naturally as is spilled every year. Just saying.

  • 6
    acannon
    Posted Wednesday, 2 June 2010 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    This is very depressing.

  • 7
    Posted Wednesday, 2 June 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Dear Blessed one, your name has been given to me by a mutual friend, as someone who can be trusted in keeping our secret. Recently the King of Nigeria and all of his family were killed in a terrible plane crash - with no survivors. Our mutual friend has suggest that you may be willing to help us to deliver US $50 billion kept in a secret bank account to the rightful inheritors.

    That and 20 cubic miles of carciogenic and mutagenic tar…..

    2 headed dickless fish anyone?

  • 8
    spacemonster
    Posted Thursday, 3 June 2010 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    pffff its only Africa.

  • 9
    David McRae
    Posted Thursday, 3 June 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Mark Duffet - have you tried running that assertion past business people and employees with the gulf lobster, oyster fisheries or in the tourism trade that relies upon nice beaches? What are they bitching about, it’s the same as last years natural release you would claim.

  • 10
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 3 June 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    @David McRae, I did say ‘globally’. The problems arise when too much oil is concentrated in too small an area. My point is that natural mechanisms (evaporation, microbes) do exist to take care of the oil, albeit they need a large surface area to operate effectively. Hence the saying, ‘the solution to pollution is dispersion’. It’s for this reason that a decent hurricane might be the best thing that could happen in the GoM.

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