Category Archives: Environmental Damage

Dutch court rules mostly in favor of Shell

Four Nigerian farmers of the Goi and Oruma villages, supported by the Dutch NGO Friends of the Earth and the local Environmental Rights Action, sued Royal Dutch Shell in the Dutch District Court of The Hague for four oil spills between 2004 and 2009. This past Wednesday, the court ruled that the oil spills were caused by sabotage, and that Royal Dutch Shell is not liable towards 3 of the 4 farmers. It dismissed the claims of the Friends of the Earth. The court’s decision would support the idea that much of the Niger Delta pollution is caused by criminal activity carried out by locals, which has been the argument of  oil companies defending their role in the environmental damage there.

The court did find that the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), a Nigerian subsidiary, could have prevented the sabotage in one case by plugging up the well but then acknowledged that the SPDC subsequently contained the leak. Nevertheless, Shell has been ordered to pay compensation to one farmer and has agreed to do so.

The verdict is not necessarily a total defeat for Niger Deltans.  Although the farmers did not prevail, the case does establish that cases against Dutch companies for misdeed abroad can be heard in Dutch courts. Friends of the Earth announced that the case was intended as a test and that the organization is satisfied by the precedent. The case been followed closely by those who have been interested in the Saro-Wiwa and Kiobel rulings.

Read details of the ruling here.

Related articles:

 

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A powerful image of oil…

Democracy Now’s Video on Kiobel

Along with same-sex marriage and affirmative action, the Supreme Court will re-examine the issue of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) as means for foreigners to sue American corporation in U.S. courts. The new 8-month session began this week and the Kiobel case remains on the docket, in which 12 Niger Deltan petitioners are suing Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum. This case has been discussed in previous posts here.

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Corporate Fines and Settlements (BP, Shell, and Exxon)

Corporate Fines and Settlements (BP, Shell, and Exxon)

You might want to click on it to enlarge it, but this infogram demonstrates the largest corporate fines and settlements for the last seven years. I am most interested in the disparity among the oil companies. Exxon-Valdez paid $507 million in fines for its 1989 spill in Alaska (which has not been totally cleaned up yet). This is just 11% of its annual earnings. In contrast, the BP Gulf of Mexico spill cost that corporation 110% of its annual earnings, and rightly so. I would attribute this to heightened environmental sensitives regarding environmental damage in the U.S. However, unless I am not interpreting it correctly, the display also says that Shell paid 6% of annual earnings to settle a Niger Delta case in 2000. Perhaps we have different sources of data, but Shell’s earnings in 2006 were $25.36-25.44 billion and not just over 26 billion, but I suppose when analyzing such an absurd profit that doesn’t make much difference. My main point is that the well-known Wiwa settlement occurred in 2009, not 2000, and it was for $15.5 million, not $1.5 billion. This large discrepancy means the settlement was actually a mere .004% of annual earnings, not 6%. To put that in perspective, the Shell corporation earns about $2.5 million per hour, so they worked off the irreversible destruction of millions’ of farmers and fishermen’s land in just over 6 hours.

French oil firm Total SA says natural gas leak ongoing at a plant in Nigeria’s Niger Delta

Total benzinestation Calandstraat

(Photo credit: Gerard Stolk)

The Washington Post, LAGOS, Nigeria — French oil firm Total SA said Saturday that a natural gas leak at one of its plants in Nigeria’s crude-rich southern delta may have been going on for weeks.

The leak at its Obite natural gas site has forced the company to evacuate those nearby and led to daily monitoring of air and water surrounding the plant in Nigeria’s Rivers state. However, Total’s Nigerian subsidiary hasn’t made any public statement about the leak since it likely began following an incident March 20, though the company has given near-daily updates about a similar leak at a plant off the United Kingdom in the North Sea.

In a statement, Total’s Nigerian subsidiary said workers noticed a mix of water and natural gas bubbling up from an uninhabited site near the Obite plant on April 3. Total said there had been no injuries from the leaks, which it said likely followed the “technical incident” on March 20.

Total spokesman Charles Ebereonwu said Saturday he did not have details of the incident.

“All necessary means to ensure the protection of nearby communities and personnel and to limit the impact on the environment have been immediately mobilized,” Total said in a statement on its subsidiary’s website dated Thursday. “Strict monitoring of the environment is ongoing and a safety perimeter has been established.”

The statement said testing has not found any “toxic elements” in the environment.

Rumors about an accident at a Total operation have circulated in Nigeria for weeks, though the company remained silent. Asked why the company hadn’t publicized the Obite gas plant leak, Ebereonwu said Total’s Nigerian subsidiary had been posting updates on its website. However, the company has not sent any information to journalists. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with more than 160 million residents, is a top energy supplier to the U.S. The OPEC member nation also has seen foreign oil firms boost production of natural gas in recent years.

However, environmental and industry regulations lag behind spills and violence in its oil-rich Niger Delta, a region of mangroves and swamps about the size of Portugal. Some environmentalists say much as 2.1 billion liters (550 million gallons) of oil have spilled during more than 50 years of production. That would be at a rate roughly comparable to one Exxon Valdez disaster per year in a region where oil still stains beaches and waterways.

Many foreign oil firms blame thieves for much of the oil spills now happening in the region, as they tap into pipelines to steal crude. However, there have been a series of major spills and accidents in the last six months, including a spill by Royal Dutch Shell PLC at its offshore Bonga facility that saw some 40,000 barrels of oil spill.

Total’s Obite gas plant exports a capacity of 10.65 million metric cubes of natural gas, and collects oil condensate to mix with crude oil it produces from another area, the company has said. Total operates in the plant in partnership with the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. Total said it has stopped production at the Obite plant and shut down its wells.

A Visit to the Poorest Communities of the Delta

I had heard about Ikebiri long before visiting.  The Ikebiri Kingdom of the Southern Ijaw region in Bayelsa State is well-known for being at the epicenter of militancy.  The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) emerged not far away, and the area is considered to be one of the “hottest” in the Niger Delta.  It hosts the Nigerian Agip Oil Company, which locals blame for the destructive oil spills and gas flares that have killed local wildlife, poisoned drinking water, and ruined agricultural land. There have been several incidents of Ijaw women from Ikebiri demonstrating in the capital, and four years ago they threatened to march nude to Agip in protest of the lack of economic development in their villages.

To access Ikebiri from Yenagoa, we took an old speedboat an hour and a half towards the ocean. We passed two military checkpoints along the way that required us to raise our hands upon approaching, to show that we meant no harm and didn’t carry weapons. Although we were stopped for having a white person onboard, the soldiers were amiable. We maneuvered around fishermen in their canoes and made sure to avoid the nets that they were floating using empty water bottles. We waved to farmers along the banks as they dug up yams and cassava.  Families were living in thatched-covered homes perched on stilts, some constructed out of scrap wood and others out of reeds. Most of the women we saw were washing clothes or bathing themselves in the muddy water and children were fishing or diving for snails in their underwear.  It was a world apart from the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods that rely on the oil underground there.

Spending less than an hour at Ikebiri makes it clear why residents demand more economic development from the Nigerian government. Our first stop was at the health clinic, which services the thousands of people in the Kingdom.  From outside it looks new, but once inside we saw that the building was simply a skeleton.  There was nothing inside except for two dilapidated twin beds and a few foam pads on the floor; there were no medicine cabinets, furniture, nor machines of any type.  Wondering about machines is highly optimistic though since those machines would require electricity or a generator, which the clinic didn’t have. The only doctor on staff, a 23-year-old recent college graduate doing his National Youth Service, said that he performs surgeries using satchels of drinking water, but if those satchels run out the he is forced to boil river water.  When a human rights activist that I had traveled with asked about health problems related to the ongoing fire on a Chevron rig, which has been burning for almost three weeks, he seemed overwhelmed and mumbled that it was causing asthma and gastrointestinal issues with the patients.  Two older men interrupted to point out their red and pussing eyes.  I don’t know if these problems can be linked to oil pollution or the poor living conditions in the community in general, but hospitals need medicines, machines, and doctors, and this one didn’t have any of those things.

During our walk back to the boat, it suddenly dawned on me why this community had felt unusual.  The majority of the residents were children.  All around were children carrying babies, children washing babies, children feeding babies.  The children must have outnumbered the adults almost ten to one.  Additionally, the adults I did see were women, and almost half of those women were visibly pregnant.  Presumably the men must have left to go find work, since fishing and agriculture are no longer able to sustain families anymore, but somehow the community still managed to have astronomically high birth rates. Nigeria has a young population, with over 1/3 of the population under the age of 24, but this community must have had an even more dramatic youth bulge.

Each community we visited seemed to have even more noticeable poverty than the one before it. As the seat of the Kingdom, Ikebiri I receives the majority of resources, so that newer Ikebiri II was noticeably less developed.  Our final visit was to Otorgbene, an island community situated in muddy mangroves.  We went to ask about the thousands of fish that had washed up on shore in the last few days, probably as result of the ongoing rig fire. Residents told us that every morning they would wake up to find more and more fish on the banks, and that they didn’t know what they could do to stop it.  They told us about common health problems they experienced; foremost among them was malaria, a problem certainly predating the development of the oil industry.  They asked about the free mosquito nets they had been promised months ago by the federal government, and the investigator had to tell them that a state government official had been caught selling the nets for personal profit, and so there were no more left. They admitted they had been excited when our speedboat pulled up because a white person was on it (me); they thought we were arriving to deliver food and medical supplies.

We carefully made our way to where the Delta creek meets the ocean at the village of Kolu-Ama.  We went to see the smoke fumes caused by the Chevron fire.  The billows came up out of the trees and then disappeared into the sky.  We had passengers in our boat from a community that is in a legal battle with Kolu-Ama over land rights, so we didn’t want to approach too closely out of fear of provoking a conflict.  I was glad to see the Kolu-Ama community that I had heard about in recent weeks, the one in which women marched to the Chevron office in Warri and then to Government House in Bayelsa to demonstrate against the company’s failure to put out the fire. It is still burning.

On the ride back to Yenagoa, I chatted with a pleasant woman who had joined us for the day.  When she showed me a picture of her deceased son, I realized that she is the mother of the 20-year-old who was shot by police for refusing to pay a traffic bribe. It is well-known story here. The two of them were coming home from church, his mother tried her best to protect him during the altercation, and he was killed holding a bible in his hand.  The police involved were acquitted of all charges except mishandling a firearm. The parents have filed a civil suit and are being assisted by the human rights activist who had led the site visit.  I couldn’t help noting the irony that her husband helps head the Joint Task Force (JTF), which has had a very heavy hand when dealing with collective action in the Delta.  The very organization that was representing her in her case for her son’s murder is the same one that speaks out against rights abuses perpetrated by the JTF in the very areas we had visited. The Niger Delta is a complicated place.

To see photos from the site visit:

Gathering Data on Pollution in Ikebiri, Nigeria

Putting a face on Nigeria’s “paradise lost”

Images such as these can be found in Delta, Bayelsa, and Rivers State. Extracting oil causes underground shifts that allow pockets of natural gas to escape and this gas is lit on a fire as means of eliminating it, causing the gas flares that are in some of these photos. They can burn for months and years, and in some communities families cook with them. In total, there are 50-100 flares across the Delta and some are so large they can be seen from space. The amount of gas burns up could power a large part of the Africa continent if it was harnessed usefully. Local residents are not keen to vent the natural gas because it is so much less valuable than oil.

Gas Flares as Seen From Satellites

Globally, oil-related gas flares emit about 390 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, and experts say eliminating global flaring alone would curb more CO2 emissions than all the projects currently registered under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism.

For other unforgettable images of the worst damage in the Delta, look at Ed Kashi’s work.

CNN Photos

As a native of oil-rich Nigeria, photographer George Osodi says he has seen the devastation, conflict and injustice caused by drilling for the “black gold.” Like many in the Delta State, he feels only a few reap the benefits of the resource.

Osodi, a Panos Pictures photographer, spent 2003-2007 documenting the delta and “the exploitation of its riches.” He compiled the resulting images into a book, “Delta Nigeria: The Rape of Paradise.”

While Nigerians might not trust outside journalists, Osodi says they trusted him because he was a local. His intimate photographs gave them a voice.

“I want to show the duality of life in the delta region,” he says. “It is amazing how people carry on with their lives, with their daily routines, with a smile against all odds. I want to put a human face on this paradise lost.”

Earlier this month, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan

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Fisherman Report Spill From Total Platform Nearing Akwa Ibom Coast | Sahara Reporters

Fisherman Report Spill From Total Platform Nearing Akwa Ibom Coast | Sahara Reporters.

Akwa-Ibom State in southeastern Nigeria has not experienced near the anti-oil mobilization as others to the west, so it will be interesting to see if there is any collective there in response to this spill. There will be little pressure on Total to engage in clean-up since a Chevron rig has been burning offshore near Bayelsa state for over a week, an incident that is much more unusual and comparably more worrisome.

Delta Politics 101

Let me try to summarize the relationship among oil, conflict, governance, and economics as best I can. Nigeria is the second-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa and all of that oil is located in the southern Niger Delta region. The area suffers from endemic environmental degradation that has negatively impacted Niger Deltans’ ability to fish, farm, and find clean drinking water.  Unfair distribution of wealth has given rise to several insurgent groups and various resistance movements, leaving the Delta with a seemingly intractable civil conflict. The Nigerian state is among the most corrupt in the world, and experienced unstable military rule until just the last decade. Despite earning massive oil revenues, 70% of Nigerians live below the poverty line.  In this blog, I will explore how these conditions affect social mobilization and resistance movements against the state and oil companies.