The first drop of oil had barely shot to the surface following the murderous explosion on BP's Gulf oil rig when President Obama and BP officials publicly declared that fixing the spill would be their number one priority. One could endlessly debate, finger-point, and rail that BP and Obama didn't initially say enough, do enough, or pay enough to back up their pledge. But BP and Obama's response to the spill after the initial shock has been one of gargantuan proportions. Obama has made repeated trips to the Gulf, dispatched an armada of ships, and coast guard personnel, a small army of scientists, technicians, and environmental experts, and thousands of clean-up workers and responders to the region. He's clamped a six month moratorium on deep sea drilling. He and Congress have tongue lashed BP officials, established a $20 billion damage fund, and pried another $100 million out of BP to compensate for the loss of thousands of jobs. In the days to come, BP, Obama, congress, and the nation will say and do much more about the problem.
There's been no prodigious administration and oil industry response to another spill that's much more destructive and long lasting than the Gulf spill. That's the four decades of oil spills in Nigeria's Niger delta. The spills have wreaked havoc on the crops and livestock, despoiled the land, water and the air, and posed a monumental health hazard to thousands of residents in the region. The spills have been ignored by the oil giants, governments, and sadly many of the world's top environmentalists. The prime offenders are Shell and ExxonMobil. They have more than 600 oil pumping sites in the delta. A spill from a broken pipeline in May dumped more than a million gallons into the delta for seven days. It drew fleeting media and government attention only after demonstrators were attacked by security forces. ExxonMobil repaired the line but ignored the protestor's demand to shell out $1 billion for damages.
The mix of oil industry indifference, silence and stonewalling has been their standard pattern to the spills that number in the thousands. From 1970 to 2000 there were a staggering 7000 spills. That may be a gross underestimate of the actual number. There are 2000 oil sites in the delta that leak continuously and they have been labeled "major spillage sites." In 2009 there were 132 spills. This was a drop from prior years. The average annual number of spills each year is 175. Shell admitted that it spilled 14,000 tons of crude into the delta last year. There is no record that Shell paid out a penny in damages to the residents for the losses.
The Nigerian government's national oil spill detection and response agency says 2 and half million barrels spilt into the delta between 1976 and 1996. But this may also be a gross underestimate. Environmental and government watchdog agencies must rely on oil companies to get complete figures on the amount of the spillage. The skimpiness in safety and environmental rules, regulations, and the lax enforcement by the government insure that the oil companies operate virtually as a nation onto themselves with no real checks by the Nigerian government or international agencies on their safety and operations.
It also means that Shell and ExxonMobil can ruthlessly cut corners, skimp, and chinch in spending on even the most elementary safety equipment, repairs and safety procedures. They don't have an enraged White House, congress, and the public filing lawsuits, and threatening Justice Department prosecutions against them. They don't have an aroused media relentlessly hounding and hammering their officials.
Shell and ExxonMobil even add insult to injury, turn the tables and blame the victims for the damage. The oil companies attribute the spill damage from wells and pipelines not to their horrendous safety and environmental practices but to vandals, guerilla attacks, and sabotage. They claim that residents continually shake them down for money and this hampers their efforts to make repairs and clean-up the spills.
The delta oil nightmare is not solely a textbook case of the greed, indifference, and environmentally destructive practices of two oil giants who flaunt rules and destroy lives in an impoverished region. There's another part to that story; a part that sadly involves the US in the complicity in silence on the oil giants shameful practices in the delta. While Nigerian exports account for only 4% of US imports, the US buys 40% of all of the country's oil exports. The irony is that with BP under fire, and Obama's six month moratorium on offshore drilling in place, US purchases and dependency on Nigerian crude could climb. This insures that the delta oil saga will continue to be a horrendous tale of two oil spills and even more horrendous for the land and people of the Niger delta.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press).
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