Saturday, July 24, 2010

Oil’s shame in Africa By: Julia Baird

It was hard to believe BP when it announced oil had stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, July 15. It had taken 87 days.

There was relief but little jubilation: it will take many years to clean the shores and the birds, and for the sea to begin to repair itself from the onslaught of poisonous oil. Surely we can no longer call it a “spill”—it seems too light and trite a word.

What’s even more troubling is that in Nigeria, the country that has arguably suffered most from oil drilling, oil “accidents”—large and small—occur almost weekly, and we hear little about it. A lethal combination of sloppiness, corruption, weak regulation, and lack of accountability has meant that each year since the 1960s, there has been a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez’s into the Niger Delta. Large purple slicks cover once fertile fields, and rivers are clogged with oil leaked decades ago. It has been called the “black tide”: a stain of thick, gooey oil that has oozed over vast tracts of land and poisoned the air for millions of Africans. In some areas fish and birds have disappeared: the swamps are silent.

Americans consume a quarter of the world’s oil—and 10 per cent of the oil we consume comes from Nigeria. Why are we not worried and angry about this? Or at least demanding global accountability from companies we support? Many Nigerians watched, amazed, as Americans berated BP for the Deepwater Horizon spill, then saw progress: our president visited the site and demanded immediate action and compensation. Not so in Africa. According to a group of independent experts, between 9 million and 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger Delta since drilling began in 1958. Cleanups have been halfhearted, and compensation has been paltry.

The money that has come from oil drilling in Nigeria—$600 billion so far—has gone to very few; most Nigerians live in extreme poverty.

As Prof. Rebecca Bratspies from CUNY School of Law says, “Problems associated with oil production are usually invisible to those of us who consume vast quantities. We don’t see how dirty it is.”

Obama asked that $20 billion be set aside to cover cleanup costs in the gulf. Will it be enough? How much would companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have to pay if Africa were well regulated and proper compensation demanded for the loss of livelihoods, illness, and damage to the environment?

This is the perfect time to assess oil-industry practices. America should lead a push to ensure global scrutiny and monitoring of oil drilling, on- and offshore. It’s messy and will never be entirely safe, but why should we accept different standards for countries with less money and clout? Global companies should develop adequate global response and compensation mechanisms.

One simple but clever idea from Bratspies is that we, through worldwide coordination, ensure that oil companies cannot drill unless they have the proven technology and capacity to respond to leaks, saboteurs, and explosions. If we made it a requirement, it would lead to a “tremendous spur in innovation in clean-up technology.” That’s something every country would benefit from, rich or poor.

Julia Baird is a Deputy Editor of Newsweek

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