Culture

Hard Oil: Nigeria's Sad Lesson In Environmental Devastation

Oil In Barataria Bay, La

Oil seeps into the deep recesses of marshland in the northern reaches of Barataria Bay, La. Gerald Herbert/Associated Press hide caption

itoggle caption Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. The brown sludge is washing ashore on beaches across the Gulf and we are all are seeing, perhaps for the first time, the true costs of our energy economy.

But, while it may be news to us that a petroleum fueled culture has hidden environmental costs, other parts of the world have learned the lesson a long time ago.

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an eye-opening story on Nigeria’s sad history of oil and environmental devastation. The piece, written by Adam Nossiter, throws a harsh light on the Gulf and what we've been able to ignore for far too long.  In Nossiter’s words the vast Niger Delta has paid a high price for its underground treasure:

Perhaps no place on earth has been as battered by oil, experts say, leaving residents here astonished at the nonstop attention paid to the gusher half a world away in the Gulf of Mexico. It was only a few weeks ago, they say, that a burst pipe belonging to Royal Dutch Shell in the mangroves was finally shut after flowing for two months: now nothing living moves in a black-and-brown world once teeming with shrimp and crab.

According to Nossiter, the Niger Delta has had at least one spill the size of the Exxon Valdez every year for the past 50 years.  In the wake of such unchecked petrochemical pollution entire swamps have become lifeless and the Delta’s population endures low life expectancy.

The comparison between the Niger Delta and the Gulf is compelling based both on their similarities and their differences.

Nigeria’ oil is the easy kind, meaning the extracting its resources do not pose great technological challenges.  The endless pollution fouling Nigeria results from mostly human causes. As Nossiter writes:

The oil spews from rusted and aging pipes, unchecked by what analysts say is ineffectual or collusive regulation, and abetted by deficient maintenance and sabotage.

While BP’s human errors and complacency clearly played a role in the Gulf tragedy, another, deeper factor was at work.  The Gulf oil BP was extracting was not the easy kind.  Drilling a mile down in the ocean means living at the hairy edge of what is technologically possible. The two-month-long failure to stem the undersea gusher is testimony to how far out on that edge we have walked.  It’s a point we should not fail to grasp.

From the Alberta tar sands to the deep sea oil fields, most the new oil resources we are likely to find in the coming decades will be the hard kind, the expensive kind.

In the past, expensive only meant technological challenges of getting rigs in and oil out. The disaster in the Gulf demonstrates a different meaning — the ecological and economic meaning — of expensive oil.

It’s a definition that Nigeria’s people have suffered under for decades.  That too is a point we should not fail to grasp.

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