While the American press, and of course American politicians, have been fixated on BP’s ongoing oil spill along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico; The Guardian reported last Sunday that the Gulf spill is actually small potatoes compared to the ongoing, decades-long environmental catastrophe in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region. According to The Guardian, a Gulf-sized amount of oil has been spilled every year in the Niger Delta for roughly the past four decades. And in contrast to the efforts to clean the Gulf Coast, little or nothing usually is done to clean up spills in the Niger Delta, despite the fact that most of the residents in the region rely on subsistence farming or fishing for their livelihoods – a likely reason why life expectancies for natives of the Niger Delta have dropped to, on average, just 40 years.
The Niger Delta is one of the richest oil-producing regions on Earth, with the “light” Nigerian crude regarded as some of the highest-quality crude oil in the world. Much of that Nigerian crude finds its way to the United States, which now gets 40% of its imported oil from Nigeria (in January 2010, Nigeria exported more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia). But despite the vast amounts of oil revenues flowing into the country, residents of the Niger Delta complain they see practically none of the proceeds while having to deal with the massive pollution and ecologic damage produced by the petroleum industry (in response a rebel movement called MEND – the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta – formed to fight for independence for the region based on the failure of Nigeria’s central government to share the oil revenues). Niger Delta residents say that rather than a single massive spill, the vast amounts of oil polluting the region come from rusting pipelines the oil companies refuse to replace and a lack of safety procedures at drill sites. They argue that oil companies simply don’t care about polluting the environment, and that the Nigerian government refuses to enforce anti-pollution laws because of the amount of money the petroleum industry brings into the country. The oil companies counter by saying many of the leaks in their pipelines are the result of vandalism or attacks by groups like MEND and not because of a lack of maintenance to the decades-old network.
Whatever the reason for the leaks, it does seem clear that neither oil companies or the Nigerian government is putting much effort into cleaning up the Niger Delta, allowing the world’s worst case of oil pollution to go on and on and on.
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