Hope Fades for Oil Spill Cleanup in Nigeria

Last year, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) released a report outlining Shell's role in the oil-covered mess that Nigeria's Delta region has become and calling for the creation of a $1 billion cleanup fund. The report estimated that cleaning up Ogoniland would take up to 30 years, but if this massive undertaking were to be successful, it could become a model for bringing the rest of the region back to life.

But now, eight months after the UNEP report was released, there is no cleanup effort, or even an update, to speak of. In a detailed and important post on Yale Environment 360, Fred Pearce illustrates why the silence from Abuja is ominous:

Last August, the current President Goodluck Jonathan set up a high-level committee to consider the UNEP report, chaired by the minister of petroleum resources, Diezani Allison-Madueke. She at least knows the delta. Born in Port Harcourt, she worked for Shell there for 15 years, rising to executive director, before joining the government in 2007. As part of her job as petroleum minister, Allison-Madueke also heads Shell’s partner in the delta, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

Her committee is said to have reported to the president in November, but Slotte says UNEP has not been notified of any outcomes. Many fear her ministry will scupper the cleanup scheme. Its officials may be angry that the UNEP study criticized the ministry’s oversight of the oil industry and called for cleanup enforcement to be transferred to the ministry of the environment.

He also points out a disagreement over approach that may hinder the entire cleanup:

UNEP had noted in its recommendations that “until the land-based contamination has been dealt with, it will be futile to begin a clean-up of the creeks.” The point was a technical one, in a paragraph about “the sequence of remediation.” But Shell chose to interpret it as a political point. Shell said in its response that it “agrees with the UNEP finding that all sources of ongoing contamination, including activities such as crude theft and illegal refining [my italics], must be brought to an end before an effective widespread cleanup can begin.”

UNEP believes that pollution remediation can help end the war between the Ogoni people and Shell. But before it starts remediation, Shell wants the attacks on its facilities to end. If achieving that requires another law-and-order crackdown in Ogoniland, the delta’s inhabitants could easily see future cleanup teams as their enemies, not their saviors.

Pearce's full piece is really worth reading in full—it provides more context to the ongoing mess in Nigeria than you're likely to see in most reporting.

Sabotage Responsible for the Spills?
For example, he sheds some light on the role that sabotage to pipelines plays in all of this. Shell blames the mess largely on sabotage to pipelines locally—even though it has been slow (as in, takes several weeks) to respond to major spills, and is responsible under Nigerian law for any spill of its oil, regardless of who is responsible. And there's no question that sabotage occurs, but to the extent that it does, Pearce explains it pretty well:

Villagers complained angrily that the oil poisoned their crops and emptied the creeks of fish, and handed me humble petitions asking for outside help.

Increasingly, the villagers have responded to their plight by taking hacksaws to the pipelines to steal oil and setting up makeshift refineries, where they distill the stolen crude to make diesel. This has compounded the delta’s devastation. Villagers say some local companies have even sabotaged pipelines as a way of extracting contracts to clean up the mess.

Let's hope Pearce is wrong and a cleanup starts soon. But history doesn't make that seem particularly likely.

There was widespread outrage when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon platform caused thousands of gallons of oil a day to spill into the Gulf of Mexico. Where's the anger for Nigeria, where a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez spill occurs every year?

Tags: Africa | Nigeria | Oil | Oil Spill