The Curse of Fossils: 13 Million Barrels of Oil Haunt the Niger Delta

Yee Huang

June 23, 2010

a(broad) perspective

Across the Atlantic Ocean is another catastrophic, persistent, and pervasive oil disaster, ongoing for the past fifty years with no end in sight. The oil fields in the Niger Delta, occupying the southern tip of Nigeria, are rich with petroleum reserves, natural gas, and other natural resources. What should be a source of immense economic wealth for Nigeria instead turned into a poisonous cocktail of corruption and violence with disastrous consequences for the environment and human rights. The BP Oil Spill in our country has turned the spotlight on other oil disasters in international waters and foreign countries, and today’s international environmental post focuses on the devastation caused by oil operations in the Niger Delta.  

The Niger Delta is one of the most densely populated regions on the African continent, home to 30 million people. The vast majority of this population relies on the Delta and its resources for economic livelihood and cultural identity; its water support the surrounding agricultural sectors. Blankets of mangrove and freshwater swamp forests provide rich breeding grounds for aquatic life and feeding grounds for many endemic birds, reptiles, and mammals. The largest wetland in Africa, the Niger Delta has unique and complex wildlife and ecosystems found nowhere else on the planet. 

The region is also blessed with bountiful natural resources that the government and foreign companies have been exploiting since 1956. Nigeria is a primary oil producing state and a member of OPEC. The country gets 95% of its export earnings and 80% of its total revenue from oil. Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of petroleum and crude oil for the United States. 

Unlike the gushing plumes of oil from the underwater well in the BP spill, oil contamination in the Niger Delta is the result of cumulative spills from the oil extraction and transportation processes. In addition to well blow-outs, oil contaminates the environment through the discharge of production wastes and refinery effluent and spills during transmission through pipelines and storage. Oil operations also lead to serious habitat destruction as a result of building transportation infrastructure, clear-cutting forests, and dredging and filling wetlands. A single drop of oil can render undrinkable nearly 7 gallons of water.

A report by an independent team of experts from Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the United States, estimates that in the past fifty years roughly 9 to 13 million barrels of oil have spilled into the Niger Delta. That's 36-50 times the estimated volume of spilled oil in the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. This same report concludes that oil companies in the Niger Delta have used substandard practices compared to other regions where they operate. For example, discounting incidents of sabotage, the average rate of spill per length of pipeline is significantly higher in the Niger Delta than elsewhere. Between 1988 and 2007, the United States averaged 0.86 oil spills per thousand miles of pipeline while Nigeria averaged 27.3 oil spills over the same length between 1976 and 2001. 

In Nigeria, laws and regulations governing oil operations and oil pollution prevention are, on paper, relatively sound. Oil companies must operate according to “good oil field practice,” which is defined as the standards set by various organizations, including the American Petroleum Institute and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. If they fail to follow good practice, the Minister of Petroleum Resources has the authority to revoke the operating license. 

Oil companies must “adopt all practicable precautions including the provision of up-to-date equipment… to prevent the pollution of inland waters, rivers, water courses, the territorial waters of Nigeria, or the high seas.” If oil pollution occurs, the company is responsible to begin clean up within 24 hours and, in inland waters and wetlands, the standard of restoration is “until there shall be no more visible sheen of oil on the water.” Oil operators are also required to pay “adequate compensation” for the disruption of fishing rights caused by oil pollution. 

The political instability in Nigeria, however, wholly undermines the effective enforcement of these laws and regulations. The country is consistently falls near the bottom of effective governance indicators. For example, Transparency International has ranked Nigeria among the worst countries on its annual Corruption Perception Index , and the World Bank Governance Indicators rank Nigeria in the bottom quartile of most governance indicators, including rule of law, control of corruption, and government effectiveness.   A 2007 Human Rights Watch report noted, “The conduct of many public officials and government institutions is so pervasively marked by violence and corruption as to more resemble criminal activity than democratic governance.”  One estimate by the head of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is particularly striking: in 2003 approximately 70 percent of oil revenues, or more than 14 billion USD, was stolen or wasted.

Further complicating the political ineffectiveness is the regional violence and animosity toward oil operations by many residents, who are both militant in their demands to share in the oil wealth. Long forgotten in the rush to capture oil wealth, some of these groups have turned to violence to be heard. Sabotaged pipelines and kidnapped and murdered oil workers make the headlines regularly, and innocent bystanders are often victims as well. This violence has caused an estimated 25 percent decline in oil production and led to an amnesty program in 2009, but militants have complained about the slow delivery of benefits from this truce.

Despite the vast differences between the United States and Nigeria, the two countries share an abysmal and devastating failure of the regulatory agencies and government to protect livelihoods, human health, and the environment against oil disasters. However, the BP Oil Spill is a relative infant, counted in days and months rather than in decades, as is the contamination in the Niger Delta.  Both the Delta and the Gulf of Mexico coast will require years of clean up to erase the stains of oil extraction, but it’s nearly certain that the citizens in the Gulf will fare better. At least they already have a head start.

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