by Adebola Rayo
Spanning the decades of economic over-reliance on oil in Nigeria, the country has continued to face several issues as a result of oil exploration and exploitation.
The most pressing ones at the moment are the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill, the corrupt practices in the downstream sector, and the back-to-back Shell and Chevron oil spills. While the first two are generating a lot of media attention, the last, which is potentially and presently devastating, is not getting nearly enough attention.
While clean-up efforts are still on-going to manage the effects of the Shell Bonga oil spill on the environment, the Senate Committee on Environment and Ecology revealed that the Chevron offshore rig gas explosion that occurred about 10 days ago actually triggered an oil spill which has already hit the shoreline.
So far, the Chevron spill has affected Koloma towns 1 and 2, Fishtown and Frupa, and as spills go, the adverse impact on the environment is bound to be horrible.
While the Senate says it will ensure that Chevron takes appropriate steps to contain the spill, remediate the impacted area and if there has been any loss as a result, pay adequate compensation to the community, that hasn’t always gone right in the past.
In the past decades, there has been no real concern shown for the Niger-Delta by the oil companies. Spills and flaring occur and while the former is usually as a result of accidents or sabotage, the latter is something that the companies, in conjunction with the government, have just refused to address.
Spills can be devastating, especially when not properly contained as is usually the case in Nigeria. According to the NNPC, there is an average of 300 spills every year and majority of them are due to accidents and sabotage. Between 1976 and 1998, spills in Nigeria resulted in a total of 2,571,113 barrels of oil being released into the ecosystem.
Recently, a United Nations study revealed that it would take the oil multinationals in Nigeria about $1billion and at least 30 years to clean up the pollution in the Niger Delta. The report also said the region needed the largest clean-up in the world.
The Human Angle
The Shell spill last month, was the worst spill in the country in the last decade; 40,000 barrels of oil. Residents of Bisangbene, Odioma, Agge, Odimodi, Ogulagha, and Letugbene were seriously affected by that spill and there is no relief available for them yet. In the past, even when the communities sue for compensation from the oil companies, the cases have dragged on for years. When the Idoho oil spill of 1998 occurred, it polluted coastal waters from Akwa Ibom to Lagos and it was a spill of 40,000 barrels of oil; the same quantity as the Shell Bonga spill.
Because clean-up is usually not quick enough, a land where the people are mostly farmers and fishermen, the impact of spills take on even more devastating effect because it destroys the soil and kills or poisons the aquatic life.
However, it is not only the livelihood of the Niger-Delta people that is affected by spills and flaring, but also their health, with residents being more susceptible to skin lesions, breathing problems and food poisoning.
For years, residents of the Niger-Delta have called on the government to curb the activities of the oil companies, compel them to carry out safer, less potentially-harmful operations, to no avail. Ken Saro-Wiwa, and other Ogoni activists were killed in the course of such struggles for the region.
The Impotence of Existing Laws
Most of the laws regulating the exploration and exploitation activities of oil companies in Nigeria date back to the 1970’s and those considered to be recent are mostly from the early 1990’s. There is no gainsaying the fact that these laws are inadequate, times have changed and these laws give more leeway to the companies than they should have. In other countries, with stricter laws, the needless disasters that occur here are averted because the companies know that the consequences of being lax in the course of their exploration are dire. They also know that when spills occur, they have to respond quickly and use the most environmentally friendly clean-up mode.
Stricter laws that compel faster and environmentally-friendly response to spills are needed in the country. It goes without saying that the gas flaring deadline which has been pushed for decades also needs to be imposed quickly. But it is not just enough to have laws, because the ones currently in place are not even enforced. Strict enforcement is what will turn the situation around. The Nigerian government has given the multinationals too much freedom and not enough sanctions and the effect of that laxity continues to devastate the people and the environment in the Niger-Delta region.