Nigeria: a forgotten Gulf of Mexico

In the Niger Delta oil spills daily a quantity of oil into the environment equal to a year Exxon Valdez. Add to that the devastating impact of gas flaring. And while the environment and people pay a high price, the companies, including ours Eni, will receive money to put an end to a practice illegal since 26 years.


An Exxon Valdez leaking oil every year in a densely populated area while nobody knows anything about it; a disaster of the same proportion as the one in the Gulf of Mexico, which has continued to occur for almost 50 years being basically ignored by Western public opinion.
Oil spilling every day, while illegal and very harmful practices, also for the global climate, such as gas flaring, continue to be adopted scot-free by the very multinational companies from which we buy gasoline. Very high environmental and human costs weighing heavily on a needy and poorly supported people, while the major oil producers gain profits: Shell, Mobil, Chevron, Elf, but also Italian Eni, whose 30% of shares are owned by the public, meaning that Italians themselves are the shareholders.

A hypothetical book on the side effects of oil should include a long chapter dedicated to what has been happening in Nigeria for decades. This issue was discussed yesterday during a press conference organised by Friends of the Earth, which was joined by the Italian president of the association, Rosa Filippini, but also Christine Weise, President of the Italian Section of Amnesty International, Elena Gerebizza, Campagna per la Riforma della Banca Mondiale, and Nigerian Nnimmo Bassey, founder of Environmental Right Action Nigeria and President of Friends of the Earth International, nominated as “Hero of the Environment 2009” by Time magazine for his active role in denouncing the violation of human and environmental rights by oil companies at the Niger Delta.

After about 50 years of extractions, with 606 oil wells that in 2009 contributed 80% of the country’s GDP, Nigeria and Nigerians should have got rich. As explained during the meeting, this has clearly not happened: the country is still one of poorest and most unstable, and the situation has worsened in the very area of the Niger delta, where most oil wells are. Due to oil spillage and the practice of gas flaring, air, water and soil are now severely polluted and the economy of rural communities, fishermen and breeders has been compromised. In the last two generations, the life expectancy of those who live in this area – 31 million people, of which 60% live on activities that are directly connected with ecosystems – has worsened and reaches barely 40 years, against 47 in the rest of Nigeria.

This area is the scene of a continuous environmental disaster that has been going on for decades. The figures mentioned by Nnimmo Bassey are impressive: 6,817 oil spills in the period between 1976 and 2001 – almost one per day for 25 years – if we only consider those documented by the government, as “analysts believe that the real number may be even ten times bigger”. A study carried out in 2007 by Nigerian researchers and the World Conservation Union, reported that 1.5 million tons of oil were spilled into the Niger Delta in the past 50 years, about 50 times the spillage of Exxon Valdez, that is as much as the oil spilled by the BP platform into the waters of Mexico this far.

Such leaks pollute the environment and it takes years to reclaim them; 2000 sites are still waiting to be cleaned up, again going by the figures provided by the Nigerian government (accused by conservationists of minimising the problem). Companies do not always clean up and, in any case, not immediately. They bear reclamation costs and reimbursements only if the leak is accidental, and not if due to sabotage and theft: this is why companies maintain that 80% of accidents are wilful (accusing local communities of wanting to get rich through thefts and reimbursements), while conservationists argue that 80% of spills are due to the poor maintenance of the 7000 kilometres of oil pipelines, many of which are more than 30 years old, while experts say that pipes should be replaced every 15-20 years. Thousands of lawsuits for damage have been filed in a corrupted system that clearly benefits powerful companies, as conservationists underline.

If spillage was not enough, the oil companies working in the area continue to practise gas flaring, that is burning off the gas coming from oil wells in the open air. A practice that had a heavy impact on ecosystems and health at local level, but also on global climate: a worldwide impact (if we also count the natural gas released in the atmosphere without combustion, i.e. gas venting) of about 400 million tons of CO2 equivalent, that is almost half the overall 2008-2012 targets for industrialised countries under the Kyoto protocol.

Although gas flaring has been illegal in this African country since 1984, Nigeria, with approximately 24 billion square meters of natural gas flared every year (which is also a considerable economic loss) is the second largest gas flarer in the world after Russia. “With the difference – said Bassey – that in Nigeria gas is flared in densely populated areas, causing asthma, heart attacks, leukaemia and other types of cancer. In addition, gas flaring causes the phenomenon of acid rain, through the combination of nitrogen and sulphur oxides with the water vapour in the atmosphere”.

“This way of managing oil wells cannot even be imagined in western countries and remains unknown to public opinion. So much so that the world’s press is following day by day the aftermath of the accident at the Gulf of Mexico, but ignores the everyday disaster in Nigeria”. Said the President of Friends of the Earth – Italy.”
In short, a systematic unlawfulness, said Christine Weise, President of the Italian Division of Amnesty International, that can be defined – also according to the Nigerian Supreme court – as a “violation of several human rights, including the right to health, a healthy environment, a decent standard of living (which comprises the right to food and water) and earning a living through work. Hundreds of thousands of people are hit – said Weise –, particularly the poorest and those who depend on traditional means of support, such as fishing and agriculture.” (see the report attached).

The situation is even more outrageous – underlined Elena Gerebizza, Development Finance Campaigner of Campagna per la riforma della Banca Mondiale – if we consider that companies, including Eni with its projects to eliminate gas flaring, “have even obtained public finances to stop a practice that is illegal according to Nigerian law: we need an urgent international regulation to outlaw such practice”. With the Clean Development Mechanism companies will receive credits that can be sold in the market for projects aimed at reducing gas flaring. After earning by continuing a practice that has been illegal for 26 years, they will receive money to stop it. Nnimmo Bassey made a biting remark: “It is just as if a thief asked you to be paid for stopping to steal”.