Last month, oil magnate Royal Dutch Shell had an industrial accident, which sent one to two million gallons of oil straight into the ocean off the coast of Nigeria. It was the worst spill in Nigeria in 13 years and the world media took no notice.
Shell’s says it has cleaned up its mess. People of villages along the coastline would disagree – they insist oil is still washing up there, in excessive amounts. The major media seems generally disinterested, and has not visibly bothered to check the facts either way. In fact, except for a few environmental groups, outrage against Shell is seemingly nonexistent.
The truth is, Shell and other oil companies in this part of the world are rarely scrutinized, and many of the people in these areas lack the political and media power to do anything about the problem.
The extent of the damage done should not be underestimated. Sensitive coastal wetlands have been poisoned, and fishing areas have become wastelands. One could easily look to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill for comparison; the damage done to the bayou’s delicate ecosystem is on par with what has been done here.
Throughout coastline villages, Shell and other oil giants have left their mark on the people. Disease, birth defects, and chronic illnesses are just some of the side effects of a life in the midst of one toxic disaster after another.
A recent report by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization exposed Shell’s tainted legacy when it outlined a 14-month study conducted by a team from the United Nations environmental program. The study found that it would take a minimum of 30 years to clean up the Niger Delta and repair the environmental damage, with a price tag starting at over $1 billion.
These types of disasters are not unusual for Nigeria; the oil and gas industry has plagued the area for over 50 years. And Shell in particular has done more than pollute the water – it has left its blackened stains upon the native Ogoni people, as well.
In 1995, Shell was connected with the government-sanctioned death of Nigerian journalist and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who led one of the first and most powerful campaigns against Shell and its inexcusable behavior. Saro-Wiwa also exposed the oil giant’s corrupt practices with the local government.
Shell is also considered responsible for acts of violence against the area’s Ogoni people, including the torture, illegal detention, forced exile, and shootings of Ogoni protesters throughout the 90s.
In 1990, Saro-Wiwa helped found the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, bringing its case against Shell’s acts of ecoterror to an international audience. As a result, Saro-Wiwa and his fellow activists – together called the Ogoni Nine – were arrested on trumped-up charges and badly beaten. They were subsequently put on trial before a tribunal without legal representation and promptly sentenced to death.
Another aspect of Shell’s current oil spill that ought to be put into the spotlight is the technology the company has at its disposal, according to a report by Wired Science.
“The significance here is the technology they’re using,” agreed John Amos of the environmental watchdog group Skytruth. “It’s a whole new source of potentially major oil spills.”
The oil is collected via a method called floating production storage and offloading (FPSO), said the report, which involves crude oil being piped to floating mobile tanks instead of fixed platforms. Shuttle tankers then collect the oil from the FPSO. FPSOs are now a hallmark of the oil industry, and were recently customized for deepwater operations.
A good example of an FPSO is a vessel “that can hold 600,000 barrels of oil,” said Amos. “When it’s full, it will be holding 25 million gallons. If there’s any serious problem that occurs 160 miles offshore – if you get damage from a major storm because you didn’t get out of the way in time, if there’s a terrorist attack, if there’s an explosion, then you’ve potentially got a near-instantaneous release of tens of millions of gallons of oil.”
What it all comes down to, Amos believes, is that the technology is primitive for such a process, and plays a huge role in the likelihood of disasters very much like that which occurred in Nigeria.
In the case of this spill, the incident happened during an attempted oil transfer between two ships. When problems like this occur, the number of FPSOs would multiply the risk.
“We’re ushering in an entirely new kind of technology with what appears to be very little public scrutiny,” Amos concluded. “We need to do a better job of understanding the risks.”
Though insult was added to injury after Shell’s false claim that the oil is now cleaned up, people in Nigeria look for hope in final statement Saro-Wiwa made at his trial: “Shell’s day will surely come,” he said. “The crime of the company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will be punished.”
Photo: Nigeria’s Ogoni community tries to raise awareness regarding the atrocities committed by Royal Dutch Shell. Bebeto Matthews/AP