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#Explained: Nigeria Oil Spill Crisis

nigeria oil spill crisis explained

Nigeria Oil Spill Crisis: The Niger Delta is the delta of the Niger River sitting directly on the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean in Nigeria. The delta is a petroleum-rich region. It has been the center of international concern over pollution. And, that pollution has principally resulted from major oil spills of MNCs in the petroleum industry.

Nigeria Oil Spill Crisis map
Niger River Delta | Source: Wikicommons

Nigeria’s petroleum industry

Nigeria is a hub of petroleum reserves with 2 million barrels per day of oil being produced in the Niger Delta. It is estimated that the delta has about 38  billion barrels of reserves. In 1956, Shell first discovered oil in the Niger Delta. Since, the industry has pumped the region for profits and propped up a rapidly growing Nigerian economy. By 2000, oil accounted for 40% of the country’s GDP.

Niger Delta Basin and the Benue trough, & the oil fields in the region
Niger Delta Basin and the Benue trough, & the oil fields in the region | Source: Wikicommons

Considering the technology that was used at that time, the condition of pipelines and other infrastructure has become outdated overtime. Currently, it is now causing serious damage to the environment, and the people living there. Being a country with access to the GULF OF GUINEA much of the population lives in the Niger Delta region, with agriculture or fishing as a major occupation.

The ‘Shell’ Crisis

With the advancements and exploitations of the petroleum reserves in the Niger Delta by Multinational companies, the majority of the people have lost their source of income. The entire area was once used to be the habitat of vast species. The people were once prosperous, but people now have uncountable deaths or mass migration to surrounding areas.

Much of this is attributed to the pipelines laid down by major corporations such as Shell. Shell since then has tried to exit the onshore operations market of Nigeria. The company has done so by selling its stake in Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC). SPDC is a joint venture between Shell and the Nigerian government. The majority of the stake held by the Nigerian government.

Ogoniland oil spill
Ogoniland oil spill | UN Environment

Shell has publicly reported 1,010 oil leaks since 2011. The oil leaks have amounted to 17.5m litres of oil spilled into the region.

The Blame-Game

The stakeholders of the petroleum operations have been Shell, the Nigerian Government, and the people living in those areas. On one hand, people are still suffering and are forced to eat, drink, and breathe oil. And, on the other hand, Shell and Nigeria are playing a blame game in the international courts.

The Nigerian government blames Shell for the poor maintenance of the production facilities and transportation pipelines that caused the leakages. Whereas, Shell alleges the Nigerian government of corruption. The government is in control of SPDC, as it has majority stake in the company. Shell claims that the corruption in the government extinguished the funds and profits leaving nothing but distress amongst the people. In addition, Shell also puts forth the fact that the pipelines have been tampered with by burglars. The burglars tampered pipelines in order to steal the oil and sell it illegally to make profits. Those holes in the pipelines have led to the pollution and destruction of flora and fauna.

TIMELINE : When four farmers took on global energy giant

In 2004, Eric Dooh who lived in Goi found out that the waterway surrounding his village houses was running black with oil. Shell built an offshore terminal near Goi in the 1960s to receive oil from Nigeria’s inland oilfields. And, then export it around the world. According to Dooh, a leak had been found in the pipeline.

Shell Petroleum Development Company employees, as well as locals and government officials, later found the leak’s source: an 18-inch hole in an exposed section of the pipeline. The operators temporarily plugged the split pipeline with wood chips and then sealed it with a clamp. But, the oil flow continued over the three-day period. Over 23,000 litres of oil had spilled and nearly 40 acres of mangrove forest had burned. The oil spill poisoned the village’s land and fishponds.

Oil spill at Goi Creek, Nigeria, August 2010
Oil spill at Goi Creek, Nigeria, August 2010 | Source: Friends of the Earth Netherlands

In June 2005, less than a year after the leak in Goi, residents of another village about 90 miles west called Oruma reported seeing oil “bubble out of the ground”. Over the course of 11 days, an estimated 63,600 liters of oil had spilled from a nearby Shell pipeline.

In August 2007, in the village of Ikot Ada Udo, about 100,000 liters of oil leaked from an above-ground wellhead. The wellhead was built by Shell in 1959 but never used for oil extraction, according to court records.

Environment and Human Rights lawyer, Chima Williams, discovered that there are more than 20 villages that had been devastated by recent oil spills.

Kegbara- dere community oil spill, Ogoniland, Nigeria
Kegbara- dere community oil spill, Ogoniland, Nigeria | Source: Luka Tomac/Friends of the Earth International

When Williams met Eric Dooh, as well as three other farmers and fishermen from Oruma and Ikot Ada Udo. Their lives had been upended by a cycle of oil spills and inaction. Williams after forming a strong argument made four separate cases against the oil company.

In May 2008, lawyers hired by Friends of the Earth Nigeria and its Dutch sister organization, Milieudefensie, sued Royal Dutch Shell and SPDC in the Netherlands.

The Judgement

On 29 January 2021, the Dutch Court ruled that SPDC was liable for damages caused by the October 2004 oil spill in the case of Dooh v Shell. However, Shell’s Dutch headquarters were not held liable. Shell was ordered to compensate Dooh for damages incurred from the spill and the fire, while also finding it liable in two other cases Williams and his team had brought.

A series of events spanning over two decades ultimately transcends into a decision that leads nowhere for the people who are actually affected. Shell has been hit by a domino effect since then. Royal Dutch Shell and SPDC are being sued for widespread environmental pollution by two other Niger Delta communities, Ogale and Bille, in February. Over ten years after a Nigerian supreme court first ruled it was necessary, Shell agreed to pay approximately $111m in compensation to the Ejama-Ebubu people for 1970s oil spills.

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