Only few countries in the world have suffered more from oil pollution than Nigeria, especially its oil-rich Niger Delta region. Year after year, spillages have devastated one of Africa’s most diverse ecosystems. The region is divided by resource disputes stoked by oil extraction. Farming and fishing communities that once long prospered there have become much poorer and sicker. With these traditional occupations gone due to the debilitating effects of oil spills, the resultant loss of livelihoods for a mass of young people has contributed to the growth of an alternative illicit industry of kidnapping, oil theft, pipeline vandalism, and high-sea piracy.
The government and the major oil companies have earned trillions of dollars in the course of a more-than-six-decade partnership. During the years of peak production, the Niger Delta pumped out more than two million barrels of oil per day, earning the country at least $80 billion annually. However, production has tanked and four of the top five energy companies (Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Eni) have indicated their intentions to liquidate all their remaining onshore and shallow water field assets. Total Energies is yet to make its plan clear. The major reason cited for the decision to leave the region is the need to curtail the environmental impact of oil production and advance their net-zero obligations. But in fact, these companies are not only escaping a surge in sabotage, oil theft and a degraded environment but also facing the threat of litigation launched by local communities.
Communities demand compensation for thousands of oil spills.
Litigations filed by the communities have started to have an impact on the image of these oil incidents. The communities are demanding that before they exit the region, the companies pay any outstanding compensation for the environmental degradation they have caused. Chima Williams, Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), told the media that the companies cannot just leave when they have created a hazardous situation. The communities also want these entities to restore their environment to what it once was before they came into the area.
According to official figures from the government, more than 7,000 spill incidents occurred in the Niger Delta between 1970 and 2000. These incidents released an estimated 9-13 million barrels of crude into the environment. In recent times, leakages accelerated with close to 8,000 spills between 2006 and 2019 alone. This is according to a study conducted by Nigerian researchers and published in the December 2020 edition of the Environmental Pollution journal. In contrast, there were an average of only ten oil spills a year between 1971 and 2011, a figure that far outweighs the number recorded in the Delta region of Nigeria.
Locals lose livelihoods and residence to oil extractive activities.
In his hometown of Goi (in Ogoniland), a local had combined fishing and farming with some success for 20 years. Well, this was until one day in 2006 when residents of the community woke up to discover that the nearby Goi River, which surrounds their farms and fish ponds, has started brimming with crude oil. A major trunk pipeline transporting oil for Shell from onshore fields to the Bonny export terminal on the Atlantic coast had ruptured overnight and spilt its contents. Acrid fumes rent the air and residents fled because they thought that a fire could erupt at the slightest spark. “My cassava farm and two fish ponds, and the river where I had fished since I was a child, were all drenched in oil,” the local said. The people had to evacuate the village because the oil slick had rendered the place uninhabitable. The affected got no compensation.
Shell, the operator of the pipeline, claimed that the break had been caused by sabotage and Nigerian laws only allow compensation for spills caused by equipment failure. The local’s story and that of his village are typical of the oil industry’s impact in the region. At least 5,280 oil wells, linked to more than 7,000 kilometers of pipelines, have been sunk there. The infrastructure is prone to leaks and the 24-hour gas flaring disrupts the lives of 1,500 agricultural communities, data from Shell and the Petroleum Ministry indicate. A 2011 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that levels of the carcinogen benzene in the region exceeds the level recommended by the World Health Organization. The UNEP study also concluded that it would cost $2 billion just to clean up in Ogbono, one district that represents a small fraction of the entire Delta.
New Smaller Nigerian independent energy entities cannot clean the region.
As the leading international energy companies depart the onshore and shallow-water fields, smaller Nigerian independent entities are moving to take their place. This is amid concerns that they lack the technical capacity to deal with the environmental fallout. For instance, an oil blowout from a field, owned by the Nigerian firm Aiteo, in the Nembe district of Bayelsa in 2021, spewed hydrocarbons into the environment for more than four weeks before it was finally brought under control. The delay in stopping the flow was because the company had to fly in experts from outside Nigeria. These spills in the smaller fields might not generate the international headlines that affected the image of the oil majors, but they happen in a politically significant region, which will have repercussions for Nigeria’s new president due to be sworn in on May 29, 2023.