5 December 2011. A World to Win News Service. Current investment in exploring for gas and oil in Nigeria is expected to reach 45 billion dollars this month, according to a 30 November report in the industry newsletter Sweetcrude. By coincidence, in a statement cosigned by numerous European film stars and other public figures issued the day before, Amnesty International France called for the major oil companies to be "compelled" to fund a massive proposal to clean up the damage they have already caused during the last half-century of oil drilling in the Niger River Delta. The initial cost of this plan drafted by the UN Environmental Programme would be a billion dollars.
The amount of oil spilled in the region is the equivalent of 7,000 tankers, Amnesty France said. It pointed out that while BP had been obliged to allocate about 40 billion dollars for dealing with the aftermath of the 2010 oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil companies have contributed little to rectify the damage they have done to Nigeria and accomplished nothing.
The Nigerian government is always ready to send its soldiers to protect oil installations from perceived threats, Amnesty France continued. To that same end 16 years ago, the statement bitterly added, that government hung six men, including the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who called for the same kind of cleanup programme the UN agency has outlined.
In June 2009, Shell oil, the company that dominates Nigeria's petroleum industry, paid 15 million dollars in an out-of-court settlement with the executed men's families rather than face trial for responsibility in these judicial murders.
Shell, a UK-Netherlands company, had a legal monopoly on the exploitation of Nigerian oil and minerals when the country was a British colony, until 1960. Since then it has been joined by France's Total, Italy's Agip and American firms. These companies provide almost 80 percent of the Nigerian government's funding and almost all of the country's foreign exchange, Amnesty France said in offering an explanation for the Nigerian government's complicity in the country's permanent oil disaster.
The Amnesty France statement was meant to draw attention to the UN Environment Programme report issued last August, as well as the mid- 2011 Amnesty International report entitled "The True 'Tragedy'" about the aftermath of two oil spills in the Niger river delta town of Bodo. Shell took responsibility for the spills, calling them a "tragedy" caused by a pipeline weld defect. The "true tragedy", Amnesty argues, was not just the spill itself but the fact that Shell allowed oil to gush out for weeks before taking action and refused to undertake any serious cleanup measures.
The UN report is based on an investigation into the damage left by 50 years of oil operations in the Delta. The 14-month survey on an "unprecedented" scale included examination of more than 200 locations, 122 kilometres of pipelines and 50,000 medical records, as well as local community fact-finding meetings involving a total of 23,000 people. Its conclusion is that the damage is both far more serious than previously acknowledged by Shell and the government, and ongoing. The report found that contrary to claims, the underground layer of clay that supposedly protects groundwater from oil spills on the surface is not continuous. As a result there is an eight centimetre layer of refined oil floating on the groundwater, contaminating the wells that were supposed to provide safe drinking water when visible oil slicks turned creeks and ponds toxic to humans, animals and vegetation.
Carcinogen concentrations reach almost a thousand times the safe level in some villages. Oil has inundated creeks and swamps, killing the mangrove leaves and coating these trees with tar. This has destroyed the fish habitats that people depend on for food. On land, "a crust of ash and tar has been in place for several decades,” killing plants or making them inedible. Hydrocarbons extend as much as five metres down into the soil. Close to a million people have been affected, losing their livelihoods and health.
It is true, this report says, that local people use artisanal methods to refine oil found on the ground or siphoned off from pipelines, causing more environmental damage. How else can they survive amidst such devastation?
A 5 August, 2011 article by the Reuters news service quotes spokespersons for Shell and the Nigerian state oil company as saying that the UN report contains nothing new that would make them take action. "The shelves are filled with reports... the fact that the devastation was caused by oil exploitation is something that all of us already knew," responded the head of Ken Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogani people.
The Amnesty France initiative is an attempt to arouse public opinion so that the UN and Amnesty International reports do not remain dead letters.
Oil production is declining in Ogoniland (the area inhabited by the Ogani people) and the rest of the Niger Delta. Shell and other foreign companies have ceased operations there. But the cumulative effects of the damage they have done to the environment and the people are increasing. According to the UN report, the only cleanup measure implemented so far, an attempt to use bacteria to eat up the oil, has been ineffective.
Shell and other oil companies, however, have not finished destroying the lives of Nigeria's people and the planet. They have merely moved their operations offshore. Deepwater drilling provides considerable economic advantages to the oil companies, and allows them to keep a distance from the populace they fear. (Whether in drilling on land or at sea, whatever jobs result are rarely held by Delta people, even in the government and its agencies.) Although this kind of drilling eliminates the need for the long pipelines and pumping stations that criss-cross the Delta, it is potentially much more dangerous, as the blowout at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated. For the oil companies deepwater drilling for gas and oil represents the future. For their planned sites in West Africa, Brazil and other countries, it represents an unprecedented threat.
(For more analysis, see "The Gulf of Mexico and the Niger River Delta: oil spills worlds apart" in
the 21 June 2010 AWTWNS dispatch. The Amnesty France statement, Amnesty International report and United Nations Environment Programme report are available on the respective Web sites of those organizations.)