Gulf of Mexico oil spill: What lessons for Nigeria?

On Monday, June 14, the US President, Barack Obama, personally met with relatives of the 11 workers who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion that occurred on April 20 on the BP oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. In what is said to be a private meeting at the White House, Obama, who, reports say, has “come under mounting pressure over his handling of the crisis”, expressed his “heartfelt condolences” to the victims’ families.

This meeting is, however, besides his previous visits to the scene of what is widely regarded as the worst environmental disaster the US has faced, since the Exxon Valdez incident, with a recent report by a government panel, The Flow Rate Technical Group, suggesting that about 30,000 barrels of crude oil per day may be flowing into the ocean.

Notwithstanding the numerous concerted but futile efforts being made by BP since the incident occurred to contain the oil leak, the company has come under increasingly sharp attack by US politicians and the media as well over its handling of the spill. An enraged US government has insisted that BP would be held responsible for all damages as “Americans would not pay a dime for the clean up” of the affected areas. It has since halted all deepwater drilling in the Gulf and also announced a six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf and Pacific Ocean.

As the US Attorney, Eric Holder, put it: “I can make this pledge to the American people that the American people will not pay a dime for the clean up of the Gulf region and that BP will be held responsible for all the damages that have occurred.” Already, the US Justice department, on its part, is considering legal action to make sure BP has enough funds to cover the damage and compensate those affected by the spill. To this end, “an understanding on expediting the payment of claims” has already been reached at a recent meeting between top BP executives, including CEO Tony Hayward, and officials of the US National Incident Command office.

Interestingly, the fact that BP shares in the UK have tumbled to their lowest level since 1997, amid fears of huge US penalties, as well as the strong perception by London of “anti-British rhetoric” in Washington does not, in any way, bother the US government. As long as it is concerned, all institutions and agencies of government must be deployed, as always is the case, to protect the American citizens, their economic interests and environment.

Now, juxtapose the above with the unfolding scenario in Nigeria’s oil producing Niger Delta region, where experts estimate some 13 million barrels of oil have been spilt since oil exploration began in commercial quantity in 1958 by, wait for it, the same (Shell) BP. You will then appreciate more how the Nigerian state has failed woefully in its statutory responsibilities to its citizens in terms of protection of lives and the environment. This is not mentioning the disgusting nonchalance of oil companies operating in the region to adhering to global best practices in their exploration activities simply because of weak or non-existent supervision by Nigeria’s regulatory authorities
A report by Amnesty International entitled, Nigeria: Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta, released just last year, which examined oil spills, gas flaring, waste dumping and other environmental impacts of the oil industry in Nigeria, classified the situation in the Niger Delta as a “human rights tragedy!” In fact, what is particularly instructive is its claim that the “Niger Delta provides a stark example of the lack of accountability of a government to its people, and of multinational companies’ almost total lack of accountability when it comes to the impact of their operations on human rights.”

The consequences of this unwholesome reality are obviously pathetic. According to the same report, “People living in the Niger Delta have to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water. They eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins-if they are lucky enough to be able to still find fish. The land they farm on is being destroyed. After oil spills, the air they breath smells of oil, gas and other pollutants. People complain of breathing problems and skin lesions-and yet neither government nor the oil companies monitor the human impacts of oil pollution.”

These grave impacts on the environment and the people have yet to happen in the Gulf of Mexico, but BP is being held by the jugular by a more responsive and responsible government.

A similar 10-year study carried out by Greenpeace International, an international environmental advocacy group, entitled, Oil Spill Intelligence Report, revealed that although Shell, which is the largest operator in the Niger Delta, operates in more than 100 countries across the world, 40 per cent of its total oil spills occur in Nigeria! The pattern of oil spill in the Delta region is no less repulsive: In 2008, Shell reported double of spills in 2007; in 2009, it reported double of spills in 2008.

This, perhaps, explains the remark by Anene Ejikeme, of the Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, that “what residents of Nigeria’s oil producing Niger Delta have been living with in the last 50 years” is the “Exxon Valdex happening every year for 50 years!” Sadly, this is one of the 10 most important wetlands and coastal marine ecosystems in the world and home to some 31 million people, where government has generated an estimated $600 billion since the 1960s!

It is striking that while the US government, knowing “just how precious the Louisiana wetlands are”, have been firing on all cylinders to cause the BP to pay for a one-off incidental spill, the Nigerian state and its institutions have over the years been working in tandem with oil companies to systematically despoil and impoverish the Niger Delta wetlands. Till date, there is no report of any effort made by the Nigeria government to bring offending oil companies to account for their actions. The reasoning could be that as long as the oil revenue keeps flowing, every other thing, even the ecosystem and the people’s natural environment for food and livelihood, is expendable

This is accentuated, unfortunately, by the fact that the “human rights impact of pollution in the Niger Delta is greatly under-reported” in the Nigerian media, unlike what is happening in the western media over the Gulf spill. The reason BP has been on its bended kneels in the US while swaggering like a peacock in Nigeria over the same offence is owing to institutional weakness and criminal conspiracy with the Nigerian state. Most often, spills are blamed on the vandalisation by the locals, even when the culpability of oil firms is not in doubt.

The point stressed by Amnesty, however, bears restating: “A government’s failure to protect the human rights of its people does not absolve companies from responsibility for their actions. Oil companies are not free to ignore the consequences of their actions because the government has failed to hold them to account. The international standard is not ‘whatever a company can get away with’-there are international standards for oil industry operations, and in relation to environmental and social impacts, that oil companies in the Niger Delta are very well aware of” What is good for the Gulf of Mexico should suffice for Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

Written by
Joel Nwokeoma
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