Ending environmental pollution in the Niger Delta

It must have been a rude shock for executives at oil giant Shell last Thursday, when Amnesty International, the controversial but nonetheless respected societal watchdog, released its scathing report on the oil pollution in the Niger Delta region.

Essentially, a study commissioned by AI and the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, CEHRD had established that Shell, which accounts for roughly half of the nation’s oil output routinely manipulated report of oil spill investigations in order to pin the blame on the activities of oil thieves rather than the most equipment failure, which has been the real cause in many cases.

Indeed, the report, prepared by the independent US oil pipeline specialist Accufacts which assessed a number of oil spill investigation reports, as well as responses from oil companies operating in the Niger Delta and National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA cited cases where Shell deliberately provided wrong information on the “causes of oil spills, the volume of oil spill, or the extent and adequacy of clean up measures.

According to the report, Shell has claimed most of the oil spilt in the Niger Delta is due to oil theft and sabotage of its pipelines but evidence shows corrosion, equipment failure and under reporting are also causes.

“Shell is being disingenuous about the devastation caused by its Niger Delta operations. This new evidence shows that Shell’s claims about the oil spills cannot be trusted,” said Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.

For example in the 2008 Bodo oil spill, the investigators found from video evidence that the actual spill volume was 60 times higher that the 1,640 barrels Shell reported.

Needless to say that the Accufacts report only backs up the United Nations Environmental Agency’s report on the same subject in Ogoniland where Shell used to operate before the crisis that forced it out and indeed what is widely known by those living in the Niger Delta region and have borne the brunt of the negative sides of oil exploration activities for the past 50 years or so.

However, the question that arises really is; who is to blame for the current situation? The international oil companies that account for 90 per cent of the nation’s export earning are indeed critical factor in the nation’s economy and the tendency has been that the government has treated them with kids gloves, which is why they get away with all sorts.

Even where agencies of government have been set up to monitor oil spills and act to obtain compensation for impacted residents, such agencies are effectively toothless bulldogs with weak legislative backing in term of sanctions for erring fi rms and even more worrisome, are technically defi cient and appear to be serving “political agendas”, have to rely on the resources of the oil fi rms they are supposed to regulate to perform their duties. It is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

While one will admit that the activities of oil thieves and pipeline saboteurs have become increasingly worrisome and have impacted badly on oil revenues, it has also become a veritable platform for the oil fi rms to hide their huge inadequacies.

One recalls the robust response from the Obama administration after British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that forced the company to set aside $40 billion for compensation and litigation claims and led to the exit of the managing director at that time.

Here, impacted oil spill victims get a pittance if at all, and the only signifi cant court ruling against Shell concerning oil pollution that gave it cause for concern given the potential to open a fl oodgate of huge claims came from a British court recently.

While Shell has expectedly rejected the report and restated its commitment to responsible behaviour, it is the duty of the government to emplace the necessary structures through which it will be able to hold IOCs to the same standards with which they operate in their home countries.

The impact of the devastation of the delicate Niger Delta ecosystem; pollution of the food chain, water sources and other negative effects on human health and quality of life arising from oil spills cannot be quantifi ed, Indeed, UNEP said that it will require $1 billion to clean up Ogoniland alone and it is obvious that we cannot continue to live this way.

It is comforting a bit that the NOSDRA Act is being looked into to give it more teeth but we need a comprehensive independent audit of the pipeline systems and other facilities to determine their state and force the IOCs to replace defective components.

Also the responsibility of regulating environmental issues in the oil and other sectors must reside with the Ministry of Environment which must be given the necessary material and human resources to work. The oil industry cannot regulate itself; it is regulated largely by fear of dire consequences for its errors. The Petroleum Industry Bill must address these issues.

Clearly, there is a need to set up an incentive structure for the thousands of youth engaged in refi ning of stolen crude, which contributes spills and pollution.

It has been suggested that such youths be encouraged to plant trees instead and claim carbon credit to be funded by the oil fi rms. It may be long shot but sensitization to the benefi ts of such a scheme will drive stakeholder buy in and save the oil fi rms the headache of dealing with the problem.

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