Nigeria Confronts the Toxic Legacy of 60 Years of Abundant Oil

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It’s one of the most polluted spots on Earth, and prospects of a turnaround only get worse as Covid-19 guts a global industry.

Bank supervisor Johnson Banigo avoids wearing light-colored shirts to his job because they’re ruined by the dark soot that falls from the heavens.

Banigo, 34, lives and works in Port Harcourt, the center of Nigeria’s petroleum industry where the evening sky literally glows with gas flares. Half a century of oil spills has left a 27,000 square-mile region of swamps, creeks and mangrove forests in southeastern Nigeria one of the most polluted places on earth. Life expectancy is just 41 years.

“Sometimes I worry about the cumulative effect living in this city has on one’s health,” he said. “It’s not only the pollution, one has to worry about the heavy traffic, the high cost of living and then serious insecurity. Robberies and gunfights are frequent as various armed groups spill over into the city from the surrounding creeks.”

Oil’s importance is fading fast, but the desperate situation in Port Harcourt is unlikely to improve any time soon for one simple reason: money. In the past decade, crude has gone from providing about 80% of all Nigerian state revenue to about 50% last year. This year, with the global economy hit by the coronavirus adding to existing trends as the world shifts away from fossil fuels, the government projects an 80% decline in oil income.

That creates a bitter reality for residents at the center of Africa’s biggest petroleum industry: they’ll have little help cleaning up pollution that’s deprived entire communities in the Niger River delta of their fishing and farming livelihoods.

Nigeria’s Polluted Delta

Crude oil spills since 2010 by company-owned infrastructure

Source: National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency

“Over so many years both the government and the oil companies have made promises to clean up without doing so,” said Pius Waritimi, an art teacher and environmental activist based in the southern oil hub of Port Harcourt. “If oil loses its importance as a source of revenue, it’s likely the Niger delta will be abandoned to its fate.”

“Obviously, it’s the most polluted area in the world where petroleum is being exploited,” said Nnimmo Bassey, a one-time chairman of Friends of the Earth International and a founder of the Nigerian affiliate, Environmental Rights Action. “The only comparison is the Ecuadorean part of the Amazon or in parts of South Sudan, but those are smaller in scale.”

▲ Crude oil pollutes the waters of an estuary in Ogoni. The area in southeastern Nigeria is one of the most polluted places on earth.

▲ Thick oil covers the ground in Ogoni. At least $1 billion was needed to mend the damage done by decades of crude production just in the tiny Ogoni district.

Crude oil pollutes the waters of an estuary in Ogoni. The area in southeastern Nigeria is one of the most polluted places on earth.

Fishing boats lay abandoned in the delta after half a century of oil spills. A 27,000 square-mile region of swamps, creeks and mangrove forests is affected.

Thick oil covers the ground in Ogoni. At least $1 billion was needed to mend the damage done by decades of crude production just in the tiny Ogoni district.

A 2011 study by the United Nations Environment Programme found that at least $1 billion was needed to mend the damage done by decades of crude production just in the tiny Ogoni district, whose most famous son, the writer and environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed by a military government in 1995 along with eight other activists.

Following his death, the delta degenerated into a full-fledged insurgency, with gunmen riding around in large speed boats attacking oil installations. The government eventually reached a peace deal with the rebels, with some of them ironically hired to protect the companies they once attacked.

Peace in the Niger delta has always been fleeting. It was integrated into the world economy by the slave trade that endured from the 16th until the 19th century. Local chiefs sold captured men, women and children to the Portuguese and then the British.

The slaves were also shipped to the new world as muscle for the mines and plantations in Brazil, the Caribbean and the U.S. When slavery was abolished, it was the delta’s oil that became a vital ingredient in the industrial revolution. But it wasn’t crude — it was the thick oil derived from boiling palm fruit that the Europeans needed to lubricate their machinery.

Just before Nigeria gained independence from the British in 1960, Shell discovered its first commercial oil field in the delta, and within a decade a fledgling nation that once depended on agriculture became addicted to petrodollars and succumbed to rampant corruption.

While both the Nigerian government and Shell made commitments to clean up the area, there’s been little progress in implementing the key UNEP recommendations, Amnesty International and other advocacy groups said in a June 18 report. The Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, a government agency created to carry out the clean-up plan, is ill-equipped for the assignment, they said.

“There is still no clean-up, no fulfillment of ‘emergency’ measures, no transparency and no accountability for the failed efforts, neither by the oil companies nor by the Nigerian government,” the groups said.

Shell insists it has met its own direct commitments, saying in an e-mailed response that other aspects of the remediation plan “need multi-stakeholder efforts coordinated by the Federal Government of Nigeria.”

Shell, ExxonMobil Corp., Chevron Corp., Total SA and Eni SpA operate joint ventures with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. Shell alone has more than 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) of pipelines and more than 1,000 producing wells.

▲ Smoke rises from an illegal refinery operation in the Goi region. These sites tap oil from pipelines, siphoning off crude to the Nigerian coastal terminals for export.

▲ Pollution has ravaged the delta’s marine ecology, with a rapid decline in catches of fish, shrimp, crayfish and other species of aquatic life.

Smoke rises from an illegal refinery operation in the Goi region. These sites tap oil from pipelines, siphoning off crude to the Nigerian coastal terminals for export.

Dark soot from an illegal micro refinery stains the hands of a resident. Life expectancy in the region is just 41 years.

Pollution has ravaged the delta’s marine ecology, with a rapid decline in catches of fish, shrimp, crayfish and other species of aquatic life.

The pollution endures. With damaged farms and rivers increasingly less rewarding, thousands of illegal micro refineries now tap oil from pipelines transporting the fuel to export terminals on the coast.

Spill data published by Shell show that in recent years more ruptures are being caused by theft and sabotage than by equipment failure or corrosion, a change from two decades ago when the reverse was the case.

Yet, the biggest documented spills remain those due to equipment failure and corrosion, such as the 580,000 barrels that poured out of the Forcados export terminal in 1978 due to a tank failure and the 300,000 barrels spilled the same year from former Gulf Oil’s operations at Escravos, as well as the 40,000 spilled from Exxon Mobil’s Idoho platform in 1998.

Ogoni Oil Spills

Crude spills in the estuary have ravaged the area’s marine ecology

Source: National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency

The delta’s marine ecology has been ravaged, with a rapid decline in catches of fish, shrimp, crayfish and other species of aquatic life. That’s had a “devastating impact on the fisher folks,” said Daniel Ugwu of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation.

Yet at the Port Harcourt office of Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre, the talk these days often focuses on the declining importance of oil and what will mean to rebuilding the region.

“We’re worried that one day the government will declare there’s no money and abandon us to our fate,” said Fyneface Dumnamene, the group’s executive director. “We’re pushing to see how much clean up can take place while there’s still money.”

—With assistance from Chukwudi Ejimofor and Hayley Warren



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