At about sixteen minutes into this video, the al-Jazeera film crew tour a polluted creek and visit an illegal refinery in Bodo.
I have traveled in the Niger Delta and sometimes thought I had gone to hell: the Satanic glow at twilight from the ubiquitous gas flaring, the pervasive rotten-eggs stench of sulfur, and even the translucent glow of the polluted waters. Environmental degradation is an important driver of an ongoing, low-level insurrection by people dependent on various forms of aquaculture, which often involves sabotaging oil facilities that only makes the pollution worse. A 2006 assessment (Doc) by the Nigeria Federal Ministry of the Environment, assisted by the UK World Wildlife Federation and other NGOs, estimated that oil spilled in the Niger Delta over the past fifty years was about fifty times the volume spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989.
More recently, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has released a study evaluating oil pollution in a specific region, Ogoniland, with scientific rigor. The report makes specific recommendations with the goal of a thoroughgoing clean-up. Deidre LaPin provides an excellent analysis of the background to the report and a quick summary of its findings and its conclusions here.
It is easy to blame the international oil companies for degradation of the Niger Delta environment, all the more so when Exxon is reporting that its profits world-wide increased by 69 percent during this year’s first quarter while Shell’s are up 30 percent. But, the real story does not lend itself to a morality tale. “Bush refining” (illegal mom-and-pop refining operations) supplied by “bunkering” (oil theft by puncturing pipelines) substantially contributes to the pollution, as the UNEP study acknowledges. More importantly, the Nigerian government is deeply involved with all elements of Delta oil and gas production through the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), and all oil and gas is the property of the Nigerian state, and provides the state with about 65 percent of its total revenue and 95 percent of export earnings. NNPC owns a majority interest in the assets operated by Shell under a joint operating agreement, for example. Such partnership agreements require NNPC to fund its share of petroleum production, including pollution abatement efforts, making the federal government at least partially complicit in the degradation of the Delta environment. But the Abuja government too often fails to appropriate the funds necessary for the NNPC to fulfill its partnership obligations because of politicians’ other priorities.
Cleaning up the Niger Delta will be expensive, and a big share of the cost will fall to the Nigerian state. Meeting those costs will require a rethink of how Nigeria spends its oil revenue with implications for the country’s entire political economy. Changes of the necessary magnitude will require enormous political will.