An Oily Mess in the Niger Delta

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A Shell oil inlet manifold stands at Kegbara-Dere, in the Nigerian oil-producing Ogoniland. Credit: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP

Nigeria is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, pumping 2.6 million barrels a day—a little less than half what the far larger U.S. produces. But Nigeria is also one of the world’s dirtiest oil producers, a place where spills and sabotage are common, and where the money generated by the lucrative oil business hasn’t really benefited the 70% of the population who live below the poverty line. By some estimates, Nigeria experiences the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez-sized oil spill every year, in drips and drabs—though those accidents get the attention that American oil spills do.

But that might change. Today the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a landmark report on oil pollution in Nigeria—specifically in Ogoniland, a part of the Niger Delta, the country’s main oil-producing region. (The delta spreads across three states in Nigeria, made up of creeks, swamps and riverways that hold rich petroleum deposits.) The study is the first independent assessment of its kind in the Niger Delta, and it tackles both the problems of oil production and recommends a list of actions for the Nigerian government. From the press release:

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  • Control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure in Ogoniland has been and remains inadequate: the Shell Petroleum Development Company’s own procedures have not been applied, creating public health and safety issues.
  • The impact of oil on mangrove vegetation has been disastrous. Oil pollution in many intertidal creeks has left mangroves—nurseries for fish and natural pollution filters- denuded of leaves and stems with roots coated in a layer of bitumen-type substance sometimes one centimetre or more thick.
  • The five highest concentrations of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons detected in groundwater exceed 1 million micrograms per litre (µg/l) – compared to the Nigerian standard for groundwater of 600 µg/l.
  • When an oil spill occurs on land, fires often break out, killing vegetation and creating a crust over the land, making remediation or revegetation difficult. At some sites, a crust of ash and tar has been in place for several decades.
  • The surface water throughout the creeks in and surrounding Ogoniland contain hydrocarbons. Floating layers of oil vary from thick black oil to thin sheens.
  • Despite community concerns, the results show that fish consumption in Ogoniland, either of those caught locally or purchased from markets, was not posing a health risk.

Here’s what Audrey Gaughran, director of the Global Thematic Issues Programme at Amnesty International, had to say about the report:

The impact of some of these sights is shocking and have had a devastating impact and I have seen huge spills recently that are not cleaned up.

We expect there will be an aim to get the government to really deal with the problems of oil spills and to stop oil companies just going into public relations mode.

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Even before the report was released, it had an effect on Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil major that has operated for years in Nigeria. The company announced yesterday that it accepted responsibility for two oil spills in Ogoniland in 2008 and 2009, and that it promised to pay compensation to the Bodo community, a local people whose livelihood—centering on fishing—has been devastated by the spills. (Shell began operating in Ogoniland in the 1950s, but was forced out in 1993—nonetheless, spills still occur in the region.) According to the Financial Times, Shell’s total costs could exceed $400 million, paid out to the 69,000 Nigerian who’ve brought a class-action suit against the company in British courts.

The history of oil production in Nigeria is dark and dirty, as Adam Vaughn describes in the Guardian:

Oil was first found in Nigeria in 1956, then a British protectorate, by a joint operation between Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum. The two begun production in 1958, and were soon joined by a host of other foreign oil companies in the 1960s after the country gained independence and, shortly after, fell into civil war…

A major 1970 oil spill in Ogoniland in the south-east of Nigeria led to thousands of gallons being spilt on farmland and rivers, ultimately leading to a £26m fine for Shell in Nigerian courts 30 years later. According to the Nigerian government, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000.

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The history of Ogoniland is especially sad, personified by the life and death of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged by Nigeria’s then-military government in 1995 after a trial that activists and foreign governments alike condemned as a farce. (Shell was accused of collaborating in Saro-Wiwa’s death, and eventually paid out a $15.5 million settlement over the murder.) But the entire Niger Delta is a textbook example of the resource curse. Somehow possessing one of the richest deposits of oil in the world has made this region poorer and more unstable.

Oil production even in the rich developed countries can be a dirty and dangerous business—just look at the Gulf of Mexico or Alaska. But at least there a good portion of the wealth of generated by hydrocarbon resources has trickled down to ordinary people, whether through high-paying jobs in the energy sector or through enhanced tax revenue. But the average Nigerian—who lives in a country that has been buffeted by civil unrest, with one of the more corrupt governments in the world—has had to endure the downsides of the oil industry without sharing in its benefits. Instead, those benefits flow to connected government officials, oil company shareholders—and all of us, the oil consumers in the developed world.

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Oil exploration in Nigeria is a complicated issue. Shell and other energy majors working in the country say most of the spills are due to sabotage or criminal activity—and the Niger Delta can be a lawless place. Shell also argues that it has spent millions working with NGOs and community organizations on the ground, helping to bring development to a nation still mired in poverty despite its natural wealth. Does oil production do more harm than good? It’s debatable—and Lisa Margonelli’s great book Oil on the Brain, which explores the Niger Delta in detail, is a good place to begin that debate.

But the reality is that with America importing about half its petroleum—a percentage that’s likely to increase as once productive finds like Alaska’s North Slope fields slowly dry up—we’ll take more and more oil from troubled countries like Nigeria, unless we can curb our own appetites. Last week’s move to increase U.S. fuel efficiency standards was a laudable step in the right direction. We need to do far more, though—and until we do, some of the blood and oil in the Nigerian delta will be on our hands too.

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Bryan Walsh is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME