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Black Gold Buccaneers: Who’s at fault for Nigeria’s environmental emergency?

Marissa Hall | Shale Plays Media

Deep in the Niger delta, concealed by thick forests and swamplands, men are undertaking a singularly dangerous activity. They are refining oil in crudely-fashioned, highly unstable refineries. These men are unprotected, having no gear to stave off burns or worse in the likely event of an explosion. Instead, they work in T-shirts and rubber boots.

Tar cakes the ground around them. It’s byproduct of refining crude oil, but it isn’t what they are looking for, and therefore it is tossed directly into the surrounding environment. Crude oil and other byproducts seep into the surrounding soil or collect into the water.

They keep the crude in makeshift storage containers, turning tarps into hazardous pools. A bucketful at a time, they are able to produce gasoline, kerosene, and diesel fuel. Vapor can engulf the operation, and it is all too possible that this condensation could catch fire, immediately creating a disastrous scene.

The oil they refine is stolen.

Nigeria’s Oil Industry

Oil is the primary source of revenue in Nigeria. In 2012, 85 percent of the government’s budget was funded by oil and gas revenues. Pipelines run everywhere, transporting the unearthed resource to refineries. The process is controlled by the major oil companies, the biggest of which in Nigeria is Shell.

These companies are plagued by a mélange of problems. The region is full of political and economic conflict, and the oil industry has become a target. Tankers fall victim to piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, and oil workers are at risk of being kidnapped from offshore rigs or even killed.

Onshore, thievery takes a different form: bunkering. Instead of hijacking a ship, oil pirates go directly to the pipeline, hacking into it and filling their boats with crude oil. Although there is a joint task force (JTF) specifically developed to combat bunkering, officials in the JTF have explicitly stated how covert those who undertake bunkering are. These looters are intelligent and plan their operations thoroughly, making it difficult to catch or stop them.

The stolen oil is then taken further into the delta, where it finds its way to the haphazard refineries. The only indicators of the refineries are the plumes of black smoke that trail into the air, visible by day and unchecked by environmental regulations.

According to the United Nations, bunkering costs the oil industry in Nigeria approximately US$1 billion. However, Shell places that estimate at 55 to 60 million barrels of oil or $7 billion each year, though the VICE documentary released early this year does not specify if this was specifically bunkering or oil piracy as a whole.

For an industry that generates massive amounts of revenue, this hardly appears to be a big deficit at first glance. Surely oil giants like Shell have profit margins far wider than $7 billion. But Nigeria exhumes about 2.5 million barrels of oil per day, ranking it sixth in world oil production. That could put Shell’s estimate of 60 million barrels of oil stolen via bunkering at 15 percent of Nigeria’s total production, a massive chunk of work done that ultimately yields no benefits.

Immense Poverty

One of the largest concerns of Nigerian communities regarding the oil and gas industry is that very little of the money trickles down into the towns and villages from which the revenue is bubbling up. Villages with oil wells still go without electricity, schools, and many other staples of the modern era. Shell claims to give $250 million to community development projects, but the state of poverty endured by the people in Nigeria makes it hard to see where that money is going.

People live on roughly a dollar a day in Nigeria, while the oil industry around them generates billions. It is the reason that many men have moved to strike back, using bunkering to simultaneously hurt the oil industry and feed their families.

A single illegal refinery operation in the Niger delta can generate about $60-70 per day, selling the fuel produced in liter bottles. While this is more than a minimum wage earner in the United States could make in an eight hour shift, it still isn’t a fortune. This money goes to feeding the families of the men who undertake this dangerous process.

The Environmental Disaster

Between what Shell deems operational spills and the pollution caused by looting and illegal refineries, the environment in Nigeria is overwhelmed by toxicity. Rough estimates compare the amount of oil spilled annually to one Exxon Valdez spill each year. But even this would be less of a problem if attempts were made to clean up the oil.

The environment is the source of well-being for those living in the Niger Delta. It is where the people bathe, wash laundry, and fish. They have no choice but to continue relying on the river in day-to-day life. Even agricultural lands that are polluted are left unrestored and unusable. Swaths of land and water have been ingrained with noxious crude.

Debate rises regarding who is most responsible for the spillage. While the UN has been investigating the issue for several years, their initial conclusions were that only 10 percent of the oil polluting the environment was the result of operational spills or pipeline maintenance. The other 90 percent, the UN said, was due to bunkering and illegal activities involving crude oil.

In a 2012 documentary from Journeyman Pictures entitled “Endless Oil Spills,” an outraged Nigerian man asked, “Would you shoot yourself in your leg?” He points out that claiming 90 percent of the spillage comes from pipeline vandalism implies that individuals would willingly destroy the same land on which their survival depends on.

Environmentalists and ecologists believe that the majority of spills are actually caused by poorly maintained pipelines deep within the forests of the delta, remote areas that harbor more risks. Sending maintenance crews to mend these pipelines could mean sending them into the hands of rebel militants, who could kidnap them for ransom, another very lucrative method used by rebel groups to fund their efforts.

Regardless of who is responsible for the majority of spills in Nigeria, it is clear that neither party’s hands are clean. Both the oil companies and the pirates are responsible for their fair share of the pollution. The question is, what needs to be done to ensure that conditions are improved from this point forward?

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