Ecocentric

Niger Delta Oil Spills in Spotlight

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With the world’s gaze focused on the dangers of oil spills, attention turned this week to a relatively overlooked environmental calamity: oil spills in Ogoniland, a part of Nigeria’s Niger Delta. If the BP rig disaster was a geyser, the spills in Ogoniland have been a slow bleed: the result of forty years of  pollution at local fields and pipelines, the majority of which are owned by Royal Dutch Shell. In 2007, the Nigerian government invited the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to undertake an environmental study into damage in the region. Shell agreed to fund the $10 million study. The agency started work in October 2009 and its report is due out in December.

The UNEP study made headlines this week after the Guardian Newspaper reported that UNEP will almost entirely exonerate Royal Dutch Shell in its report, claiming that only 10% of oil pollution in Ogoniland has been caused by equipment failures and company negligence, and  that the remainder has come from local people illegally stealing oil and sabotaging company pipelines.

The Guardian report focused on comments made by Mike Cowing, the head of a the 100-strong UNEP investigative team, at a press briefing in Geneva. His comments were also reported by Voice of America. Cowing said that 90% of the 300 known oil spills in the region had been caused by “bunkering” gangs trying to steal oil. With 606 oil fields, the Niger delta supplies 8.2% of the crude oil imported by the US; its residents live in environmentally degraded communities, often without clean water.

But in a release on Aug. 23, UNEP distanced itself from Cowing’s comments and made clear it was not (yet) appropriating blame.

Media reports over the past days and weeks have indicated that it is UNEP’s determination that 90 per cent of oil spills are linked with so-called ‘bunkering’ and criminal activity.

In referring to this data, UNEP clearly indicated that these figures represented official estimates of the Government of Nigeria, based in part on data supplied by the oil industry.

They therefore do not represent nor reflect results of UNEP’s current assessment process which is still ongoing. To link this data with UNEP’s study or indeed any future attribution of responsibility is incorrect.

But while UNEP’s release backed down from assigning blame for the oil spills, it also recognized that they represent a “human and environmental tragedy.”  It’s that aspect that the team has been focusing on—collecting water and soil samples, and interviewing local communities impacted by environmental degradation. Whatever its conclusions regarding blame, the UNEP report has the potential to provide a lasting and definitive record of this oft-overlooked tragedy.

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