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Shell Games in Nigeria | The Nation

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Shell Games in Nigeria

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The oil companies' most controversial practice is their continued gas flaring. When petroleum is extracted, natural gas known as "associated gas" emerges along with it. In developed countries, companies capture associated gas for use or reinject it into the earth. In Nigeria, they burn most of it on the spot.

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Sasha Chavkin
Sasha Chavkin is a reporter based in New York City. His coverage of the environment has appeared in Mother Jones,...

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A 2007 report by Nigeria's Department of Petroleum Resources documented 117 flare sites in the Delta, some of them beside rural communities that no longer experience darkness at night because of continuous burning. According to the Canadian Public Health Association, flares contain more than 250 toxins, including benzene, mercury and arsenic. A 2005 study by Friends of the Earth Nigeria estimated that flaring in Bayelsa caused forty-nine premature deaths, 4,960 child respiratory illnesses, 120,000 asthma attacks and eight cases of cancer each year. Flares also contribute significantly to climate change: according to a 2002 World Bank memo, gas flares in Nigeria accounted for more greenhouse gas emissions than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined.

Routine gas flaring has been illegal in Nigeria for twenty-five years, with exceptions for fields that are issued ministry-approved certificates. But Shell and the other oil majors have flouted deadline after deadline for ending the practice. The latest government cutoff date to come and go was 2008; the current target is 2011. In June Oil Change International reported that Shell's promised dates for ending flaring in Nigeria have shifted from 2005 to 2008, then to 2009, 2010 and most recently 2013.

A Shell spokesman stated that the company has reduced flaring by 30 percent since 2002, and that it has invested $3 billion toward stopping its flares. The company maintains that its efforts to end flaring have been unsuccessful because security in the Delta is so poor and because the Nigerian government has failed to pay its share of the costs for the infrastructure needed to capture or reinject associated gas. Both of these are genuine obstacles. But internal documents revealed in the Wiwa v. Shell case show that in the 1990s Shell modeled the effects of ending gas flares by the year 2000. The company's 1996 Country Business Plan for Nigeria found that "unconstrained flaring" would be more profitable, since abatement is costly and hampers production. While the report stated that the model with unconstrained flares was "solely for reference," the 2000 cutoff date was soon dropped. Michael Watts, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on the Niger Delta, says the government often issues public orders and reprimands to the oil majors but fails to hold them accountable even for outright disregard of its regulations. "No one believes for a moment that any of this stuff will be acted upon," says Watts.

The other critical source of contamination in the Delta is oil spills. In the half-century following the discovery of oil in Nigeria, the World Wildlife Foundation noted, the industry spilled 1.5 million tons of oil in the Delta, the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill each year. Government figures indicate that there are currently 2,472 oil spill sites in the region. These spills often generate protracted disputes over cleanup and compensation. Communities usually blame faulty equipment and demand repayment for damages; Shell claims that the vast majority are caused by sabotage, which does not require compensation by the company. Shell maintains that 85 percent of the oil it spilled in 2008 was a result of criminal activity; environmentalists claim the figure is significantly lower.

Companies are obligated to clean up all spills, a job they are often accused of performing inadequately, late or not at all. Four fishermen from the Delta are suing Shell in a Dutch court for its alleged failure to clean up or compensate for spills that killed all the fish in their ponds. Two of the plaintiffs claim that Shell's cleanup contractor set fire to the spilled crude. On December 30 The Hague Civil Court is expected to decide if it will accept the case, a ruling that will set a precedent on whether parent company Royal Dutch Shell can be held liable for its Nigerian subsidiary. Friends of the Earth Nigeria and local media have also reported five other cases of alleged major oil fires that occurred following spills by Shell. Shell's spokesman noted that "controlled burning of oily debris in appropriately lined pits is permitted by legislation" but said other cleanup methods are more common.

Many Ikarama residents say that the use of fire as a cleanup method is commonplace. Alagoa Morris says he has seen at least six burned oil spill sites in the vicinity. Shell's community relations officer for Ikarama, Tunde Joel, stated that accounts of fires being set to spilled oil, including reports of the March 1 blaze, are fabrications by townspeople angry at being passed over for cleanup contracts. "In Ikarama, no fires," said Joel. "Some few people will say there is fire. These are people who are angry at their brothers, so they are busy writing." Photographs taken by Morris show a massive blaze in Ikarama on March 1.

The costliest ruling Shell has faced was handed down by the Nigerian Parliament in 2000, which ordered the company to pay $1.5 billion to the Ijaw people of Bayelsa for decades of environmental degradation. Shell appealed the decision in Nigerian court, and in 2006 the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt affirmed the Parliament's judgment. Shell appealed again and has yet to pay any compensation. "They keep on using the strategy of avoidance and deliberate delay," says Oronto Douglas, one of Nigeria's leading environmental lawyers. "They don't respect the judicial system in Nigeria."

Years of frustration and poverty have repeatedly boiled over into violence. MEND launched a major offensive in June, blowing up oil facilities, sabotaging pipelines and kidnapping oil workers. Shell was temporarily forced to withdraw its personnel from the Western Niger Delta and saw its production plummet to 140,000 barrels per day from its 2008 average of more than 850,000. The offensive brought the cash-strapped government to the bargaining table to try to restore the flow of oil; it began its sixty-day amnesty initiative on August 6.

Opportunistic gangs are cashing in on the disorder as well. Abductions for profit have soared in the past year; in October Nigeria's thirty-six state governors issued a joint statement calling on the government to institute the death penalty for kidnappers. Even Henry Okah, MEND's most prominent leader, was waylaid in August by armed robbers, who pointed two AK-47s in his face, stole his car and left him and two traveling companions stranded alongside the expressway. The biggest money is in oil bunkering: a massive racket of stealing oil from pipelines and tankers that is believed to include militants, gangs and powerful politicians. A report by the federally appointed Niger Delta Technical Committee found that bunkering cost Nigeria $3 billion in the first seven months of 2008 alone.

Most leading MEND commanders have accepted the federal amnesty. By November 30 national oil production had rebounded to 2.4 million barrels per day, about 700,000 more than output during the summer's conflict. But some Delta activists believe that the cycle of poverty, pollution and conflict cannot be broken as long as the oil continues to flow. Of roughly $700 billion in Nigerian oil revenues since 1960, 85 percent has accrued to 1 percent of the country's population. Nigeria's Human Development Index, as of 2005, was on par with Haiti and the Congo. "Oil has not profited the people of the Niger Delta in any way," says Celestine AkpoBari of the Ogoni Solidarity Forum. AkpoBari believes that no compromise can be reached with Shell and the oil companies following what he describes as a record of continuous environmental and human rights abuses in the region. "They should go and leave our oil under the ground," he says.

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