Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Scoping Problem and the Petroleum Industry

It is hard to imagine that the Gulf oil spill is the microscopic view. But my friend Sally has a telescope. And she sent me an article the other day that reminded me of the broader view. You want to talk oil and disaster? 

I’ll tell you this, I may be dead but my ideas will not die and I know that I have the moral victory”

How many of you recognize the face of the man above? I betting none of you do.

That's Ken Saro-Wiwa, playwright, author and environmental activist. I remember contributing to an environmental group associated with his name back in 1997 after learning about him from outspoken (no surprise there) comments by Wole Soyinka on PRI. A member of the Ogoni peoples of Nigeria, Saro-Wiwa was the son of the chief of the Ogoni tribe. (Saro is a designation that means 'oldest son' in the Ogoni language.) The Ogoni are the indigenous people of the Niger Delta and Rivers State, which lies on the Gulf of Guinea. Ogoniland possesses some of the richest oil fields in the world. And hence, its sorrow.

After existing largely unscathed during the slave trade era that decimated other populations along the coast, the Ogoni of Rivers State were part of the area of Nigeria colonized by the British in 1885. Resistance among the Ogoni, who had a loosely organized tribal structure, continued until 1914. As industrialization and dealing with a monetary-based economy took hold, the Ogoni were propelled into the modern era. And then there was the great Nigerian Civil War, which decimated populations to the North in the 1960's, wiping out large numbers of Ibo people in pogroms and scattering the Ibo people, a substantial tribal group who had been very involved in the military and government into refugee status all over the world. The Rivers State, which had been a autonomous region, was re-annexed with the discovery of oil in Niger Delta, a point which further fractured the Nigerian political scene as people to the south and east felt leaders in the north would simply exploit the oil-rich Delta at the expense of the indigenous people. How prescient they were.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People  and an environmental activist. His group espoused non-violent resistance to the Nigerian politicos who had brokered a deal with Royal Dutch Shell that laid waste to Ogoniland and the Niger Delta. For his leadership and resistance, Saro-Wiwa was arrested, along with eight others in his resistance movement, in 1994 on apparently trumped up charges in the involvement in the murders of four Ogoni chiefs. They were executed by hanging in November 1995, after conviction by a military tribunal at a closed trial in which most of the defense attorneys resigned stating, at the clear risk of their own lives, that the trial was rigged by the regime of Sani Abacha, the military dictator running the show in Nigeria at the time. Abacha, considered one of the most corrupt leaders in modern history, siphoned off approximately $4.3B in USD during his five year tenure as de facto president of Nigeria. Where did that money come from? Hmmmm. Petroleum, anyone?

In a rare concession, oil giant Shell agreed in 2009 to pay out $15.5M to the families of the Ogoni Nine. Although accused of collaborating in the execution of Saro-Wiwa and the other eight men, Shell refused to accept any culpability and instead said the monies were offered in the spirit of reconcilliation.

     Members of Nigeria's Ogoni community protest against Shell in New York. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

As columnist John Vidal pointed out, although a victory for the Ogoni people, the settlement by Shell stops short of real justice because the displacement of the Ogoni from Ogoniland, and the massive amount of dumping of petroleum waste, really cannot even begin to be addressed with this settlement from Shell. The displaced people of the Niger Delta have become poorer and poorer. Their agricultural areas have been ruined, as has their water supply, from the ravages of petroleum industry development in a country with a government that is far removed from the region and which has little incentive, thanks to corruption, in oversight and responsible mining.

From the Guardian's Photo Gallery on Shell in the Niger Delta:

A privately owned water tap is locked in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, October 2004. Port Harcourt, the oil capital of Africa is a crowded city plagued by crime where most people live on mud streets without electricity, running water or sewer. Despite producing 2.26 million barrels of oil a day, 60 percent of Nigerians live below the poverty line.
Photograph: Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images

Oil from a leaking pipeline burns in Goi-Bodo, a swamp area of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, October 2004. Oil company Royal Dutch Shell said the leak was caused by unknown saboteurs on Monday who used a hacksaw to cut open a major pipeline feeding oil to an export terminal at Bonny, southern Nigeria.
Photograph: Austin Ekeinde/Reuters

What is the Niger Delta like today? We can scroll ahead, fifteen years after Ken Saro-Wiwa gave his life for his cause- preserving Ogoniland from the ruination of unchecked crude petroleum extraction, and unremediated environmental destruction of the Niger Delta. What has changed? Sadly, only the name of the Petroleum Villain du Jour. 

The new bad guy is Exxon/Mobil but the old bad guy, Shell, is still in the game. From a recent article by John Vidal, estimates are that 2.4M barrels (that's 101M gallons) of oil has been spilled in the Niger Delta. It contaminates the drinking water, agricultural areas, fishing areas and more. Exxon/Mobil had a rupture just last month on one of their pipelines that gushed oil for some seven days before it was sealed. The source of the majority of the leaks? A contentious issue. Of course, the petroleum companies say it isn't their fault. They blame vandals and even claim delays in repairs are because of communities that refuse to let their workers in for reparations because they hope to make monetary claims against the oil companies. However, a network of rusting pipelines, storage tanks and pumping stations that in some cases are almost fifty years oil, might also have a thing or two to do with it. 

From Vidal's article, (not even considering land-based spills) Activist Ben Amunwa, of the London-based oil watch group Platform, is quoted as saying: "Deepwater Horizon may have exceed Exxon Valdez, but within a few years in Nigeria offshore spills from four locations dwarfed the scale of the Exxon Valdez disaster many times over. Estimates put spill volumes in the Niger delta among the worst on the planet, but they do not include the crude oil from waste water and gas flares. Companies such as Shell continue to avoid independent monitoring and keep key data secret."

The Guardian article suggests the Delta has suffered about 7000 spills between 1970 and 2000. Shell admits to having spilled 4.45M gallons in 2009 alone. There have been about 2000 "major" spillages by official government and industry reckoning. In the face of Tony Hayward of BP calling our Gulf disaster modest, I really struggle to think of what that might mean that there are 2000 "major" spillages in the Niger Delta.

Vidal's article also quotes Judith Kimerling, a professor of law and policy at the City University of New York and author of Amazon Crude, a book about oil development in Ecuador, who says: "Spills, leaks and deliberate discharges are happening in oilfields all over the world and very few people seem to care."

Ogoniland today is barren, horribly polluted and sadly disproves Ken Saro-Wiwa's dying assertion. 

Maybe you really can kill an idea.

Shell oil spill at Goi, Ogoni Land, NIger Delta. © Alison Dilworth/Friends of the Earth, April 2005

   Shell oil spill at Goi, Ogoni Land, NIger Delta. © Alison Dilworth/Friends of the Earth, April 2005

Shell oil spill at Rukpoku, Niger Delta, showing no clean up or remediation after 3 months. © Elaine Gilligan/Friends of the Earth, June 2004

Shell oil-heads leaking at K-Dere, Ogoni. © Elaine Gilligan/Friends of the Earth, June 2004

Ogoni Oil Spill, 2007, ©George Osodi.

You can view photographer George Osodi's amazing gallery of Oil-Rich, Poverty Stricken Nigeria here. I'm using his image above totally without permission to further awareness of his cause.

You can view the Friends of the Earth portfolio here..


  1. Ah Marzie, as you often do you've taken the germ of an idea and developed it more thoroughly than I imagined. It's a tragic ongoing story that needs to be told. You've presented it very well.

    Shamefully, I did remember Ken Saro-Wiwa's face but would not have been able to put his name to it under any circumstances.

  2. The reason I did know who he was (from the name, not the picture) was because of National Geographic's excellent magazine coverage of the Nigerian Delta over the years. (My annual Christmas presents from my parents are a subscription to the magazine and a Met membership.)

    There was a girl at my high school whose parents emigrated from Nigeria to the U.S. They were of the wealthy Nigerian set. It was a different take than Nat Geo, for sure. :(

  3. CN, I've got several good Nigerian friends too, including one whose family was Yoruba on one side and Ibo on the other. They had to leave because of the Civil War and de facto ethnic cleansing against the Ibo. She describes the Nigeria she visits now, especially the Delta area, as incredibly depressing. She was from a simple middle class family but says there is no more middle class now. It is so very sad to think a country that has so much in the way of wealth of resources is squandering its future health (people, land, ocean) and as well as its present.