Corporate barbarity in the age of ‘peak oil’

 The barbarity of multinational oil companies working in the Niger Delta in Nigeria defies description … but Platform, the London-based campaign group, keeps working at describing it anyway. Their latest report, Counting the Cost, published this month, shows how:

■ “Shell’s close relationship with the Nigerian military exposes the company to charges of complicity in the systematic killing and torture of local residents”. Twelve years since the fall of the military dictatorship, and nine years into Shell’s PR campaign claiming that it practices “corporate social responsibility” … life goes on in the traditions of the Umuechem massacre of 1990 – when troops gunned down 80 people and burned 495 homes, because villagers had dared to protest that after 25 years of Shell oil production from their land they had no running water, no electricity and no secondary school.

■ Shell is implicated in “regularly assisting armed militants with lucrative payments”. In other words, oil continues to fuel the armed conflict that is tearing communities apart in the Delta.

■ In Ogoniland, where the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others were hanged in 1993 for mobilising local people against oil companies, Shell has brought all the joys of oil production back to communities: in 2009-10, “security personnel guarding Shell facilities [in Ogoniland] were responsible for extra-judicial killing and torture”.

Platform’s report is the latest of a continuous stream of NGO publications detailing the horrors inflicted on the Niger Delta by big oil since production began in 1958.[1] The roots of the tragedy lie in a combination of: very rich, easy-to-access deposits of oil; the proximity of these deposits to the ecosystem of the Delta (one of the world’s largest river deltas); the importance of the Delta’s freshwater creeks, waterways and wetlands to agriculture and to the life and health of the area’s 20 million people; the inability and/or unwillingness of a succession of Nigerian governments to regulate the oil companies; the companies’ abandonment of the most basic health and safety standards in pursuit of cheap, plentiful and easily exportable oil.

The Delta has been poisoned by oil spills on a scale citizens of the global north find hard to imagine. Although successive official mechanisms for reporting spills have been discredited, there are reliable estimates. In 2006, for example, independent expert researchers found that between 9 million and 13 million barrels of oil had been spilt in the Delta in the previous 50-year period, equal to a disaster the size of the notorious Exxon Valdez spill (off Alaska in 1989) each year.[2] A major cause of spills is the laying of pipelines above ground and inadequate maintenance of them, along with regular breaches of standard oil industry procedures. The result is that drinking water is poisoned, fish stocks are destroyed and mangrove swamps are trashed. This is nothing new or out of the ordinary: it has defined life in the Delta for the last half century.[3]

One of the world’s most horrible environmental disasters was just the beginning, though. Community protest against this large-scale destruction, starting in the 1990s, was met with military repression; in the post-dictatorship years, protest increasingly gave way to violent assaults on oil installations, kidnappings and oil theft; cynical “corporate responsibility” programmes by the oil companies put dollars in the hands of community elites and gangs, which were then spent on guns … which in turn aggravated civil conflict and corruption. (Platform’s report deals with this in detail.) And so on.

It is often argued that big oil’s behaviour in the Delta falls short of international standards, and that the multinational companies are inflicting suffering on communities that they could not do in the countries where they are based. True. But the really important point is that what happens in the Niger Delta is central to how the oil industry works. Integral to it. The Delta operations, complete with human rights abuses, the destruction of communities and the poisoning of water resources, are not an optional extra. They are an accurate measure of the lengths to which the oil companies will go to produce oil, as resources get scarcer and harder to access.  

Nigeria is Africa’s largest, and the world’s tenth-largest, oil producer; its reserves are the second largest in Africa after Libya’s.[4] The weak regulation, favourable tax regime and corruption of successive governments make it a favourite destination for international oil companies (IOCs) that have found life so tricky in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in recent years. Not only Shell but also ENI, Chevron, Total and ExxonMobil have Nigerian-based subsidiaries that produce oil in the Delta. Much of it is exported to the USA and Europe.

There is a point here about “peak oil”. If you want to know what it looks like in 2011, and has looked like for some years already, focus on the Niger Delta. People tend to argue about “peak oil” in terms of the point at which world production will outstrip reserves replacement. They obsess about production forecasts that in any case can not be accurate (because of unknowables including levels of investment, changes in technology, etc). But the real issue is that oil is already getting increasingly difficult to find. Oil companies are relying increasingly on supplies either from countries that have just been bombed by the US and its allies (e.g. Iraq or Libya), or from ever more remote and environmentally damaging projects (Canadian tar sands, the Arctic, etc). It is these pressures that make it almost impossible for oil company managers to contemplate the only remotely rational or humane thing they could now do in the Niger Delta, i.e. pack up and leave. As oil supplies worldwide get further away and more expensive to develop, the comparatively cheap, easy resources of the Delta are ever more vital to the IOCs that work there. 

The disaster inflicted on the Delta by oil companies has given rise not only to communities turning against each other and to the growth of criminal gangs. It has also produced a huge range of social and community movements. For those trying to work out strategies that will unite workers in energy industries, communities where they are sited and broader social movements, the Niger Delta is a touchstone. GL.


[1] Some of the best to appear recently are: Amnesty International, Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta (London, 2009); and Richard Steiner, Double standards? International standards to prevent and control pipeline oil spills, compared to Shell practices in Nigeria, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (Friends of the Earth Netherlands, 2010). Environmental Rights Action (Friends of the Earth, Nigeria), monitors oil companies’ activities and local and international campaigns against them and there is much useful material on their site, http://www.eraction.org/.

[2] Amnesty International, Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta, p. 16

[3] For example, the UN Environment Programme this year published a report on the damage done by oil spills in Ogoniland, a small area of the Delta in which production has been relatively low since relations between communities and oil companies broke down after Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death. It noted “ten communities where drinking water is contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons” (in some places 1660 times the legal limit); “control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure has been and remains inadequate”; the Shell Petroleum Development Company (a joint venture between Shell, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and other companies) does not apply its own procedures; oil spills on land cause fires; scientists found an 8 centimetre layer of refined oil floating on groundwater serving drinking wells that had been there since a spill six years earlier; the damage would take five years and billions of dollars to clean up and a sustainable recovery will take 25-30 years (UNEP, Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland, 2011). Community activists in the Delta have heard similar things hundreds and thousands of times.

[4] BP, Statistical Review of World Energy, 2011. In 2010 Nigeria produced 2.4 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil, Africa 10 million barrels and the world 87.4 million barrels.

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