Oil pollution, sabotage and security

I’m finally back at my desk, catching up with news and writing.

Oil watchdog Platform has published a briefing, Dirty Work, revealing Shell’s financial links to human rights abusers in Nigeria.The company spends hundreds of millions of dollars on security forces to protect its workers while the suffering of local communities continues unabated.

This briefing arrives a year after the publication of a U.N. report that slammed multinational oil companies, Shell in particular, for a half century of pollution in the Niger Delta. A recent Reuters article, A year on, Nigeria’s oil still poisons Ogoniland, describes the situation today:

A landmark U.N. report on August 4 last year slammed multinational oil companies, particularly leading operator Royal Dutch Shell, and the government, for 50 years of oil pollution that has devastated this region of the Niger Delta, a fragile wetlands environment.

It said the area needed the world’s biggest ever oil clean-up, taking at least 25 years and costing an initial $1 billion. Shell and the government swiftly pledged to act on it.

One year on, residents say they’ve seen no evidence that it has begun.

Shell says it is committed to cleaning up Ogoniland, but argues the government must also do its part. Most oil spills are the result of theft by armed gangs hacking into pipelines, it says, and this must be addressed alongside any clean-up.

Nigerian oil ministry officials were not available for comment, but government last week announced a new committee to look into implementing the report’s recommendations.

When BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured in April 2010, spewing nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the sea, its reputation took a devastating blow, and it had to pay billions of dollars to those affected.

In Nigeria, thousands of barrels are spilled every year, largely without negative consequences for the oil companies.

So Shell spends millions on “security” yet can’t stop sabotage along its pipelines? And the company can’t clean up as long as the sabotage continues? Wouldn’t it make more sense to divert some of that security money into clean-up operations?

A reporter from Al Jazeera recently spent some time with some of those Nigerian saboteurs. The story, The looting and “cooking” of Nigeria’s crude, describes communities dependent on bunkering and illegal refining as fishing and farming have been wiped out by pollution. The reporter, Mohammed Adow, relates what he witnessed on an aerial tour of the region:

Flying low over the oil-producing Niger Delta, Al Jazeera witnessed what is effectively a crime scene: rivers and streams covered by thick filmy layers of oil. Vegetation in this once heavily forested region has also been devastated by frequent oil spills and explosions.

We were taken on the aerial tour by Shell, the biggest oil company in Nigeria, which was keen to point out the environmental damage caused by oil theft and illegal refineries.

There is so much damage, Shell now says its “priorities have changed”.

“Cleaning up what has already occurred would be futile unless you stop more from happening and I think that is where the challenge is,” said Dr Philip Mshelbila of Shell Nigeria.

“It’s not so much the cleanup, but it’s the stopping of new spills from occurring in either already contaminated areas or new areas,” he added.

Once again, Shell claims that clean-up is impossible. Whose fault is it?  One thing is certain: the communities never asked for the oil…

Meanwhile, Exxon Nigeria has started clean-up of another offshore “leak” although the company “wasn’t yet sure what caused the leak.”

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