Oil Spills Occur Almost Weekly In Nigeria

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Since drilling began over 50 years ago, millions of barrels of oil have spilled into the Niger Delta. Julia Baird, deputy editor of Newsweek, talks about the environmental and social impact of the spills, which occur almost every week.

NEAL CONAN, host

We still don't know if the cap on BP's ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico will contain the damage. Tests continue. Seepage is the word of the day. But a piece in Newsweek points out that spills happen almost weekly in Nigeria and have been since drilling began there over 50 years ago. About 10 percent of the oil we use comes from fields in the Niger Delta, which has become an ecological disaster area.

If you have questions about oil and Nigeria, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation via our website. That's at npr.org. Go there and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Julia Baird is deputy editor at Newsweek and wrote the piece "Oil's Shame in Africa" and joins us by phone from Philadelphia. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. JULIA BAIRD: (Deputy Editor, Newsweek): Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And can you describe the kind of damage that has occurred in the Nigel Delta?

Ms. BAIRD: Yes. It's quite shocking, and it's gone on for several decades. Ever since they began drilling there in 1958, we've had five decades of extensive and ongoing spills. Really, experts estimate that approximately each year, there's a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez in the Niger Delta, which is home to 31 million people, the world's third largest area of kind of wetlands, which is mangroves and fish and shellfish.

And I think a lot of the problem is that the spills just aren't cleaned up quickly. They aren't attended to sometimes at all or there's a very paltry, you know, effort put in and there's 2,000 sites there which still need to be cleaned up.

CONAN: Two thousand sites that need to be cleaned up?

Ms. BAIRD: Yes.

CONAN: What kind of damage is that causing? You mentioned marshlands. Obviously, we're aware of the kind of damage that can cause from our recent experience in Louisiana. But as you mentioned, there's an awful lot of people who live down there too.

Ms. BAIRD: Well, that's right. I mean, you know, in terms of the health problems that are reported, a lot of children especially talk about lesions on their skins, problems breathing. And, look, life expectancy in the area has gone down. Obviously, that's something that's very difficult to measure. There's a number of factors. There's extreme poverty. But we certainly know that this is a contributing factor to health and illness. And of course, there's livelihood.

When there's entire kind of villages and populations that have depended on fishing, shellfish, you know, even wildlife and crops, and suddenly, you know, their entire farm is wiped out and they're never really compensated for it, that obviously is going to play into relate to a lot of health problems as well.

CONAN: Nigeria has a popularly elected government. And from reading your article, they appear to have done very little here.

Ms. BAIRD: Well, yes. The aptly named Goodluck Jonathan has his work cut out for him. Obviously since the time - since independence, they've been run largely by military dictators. So - and there hasn't really been a lot of effort to either respond to the spills, listen to the people or return some of the vast amounts of money which have been got from the oil production. Six hundred billion dollars so far. And kind of return that back to the people in any way.

And that's where we've seen a real kind of anger and, you know, uprising amongst a lot of Nigerian people. There's a lot of terrorists now. There's an independence movement that's engaging a lot of sabotage and kidnapping. I just think, just for so long there was such a discrepancy in terms of wealth and the ongoing oil problems that now, you know, it's a complete disaster for a lot of the oil companies, and even functioning there.

CONAN: You mentioned the resistance movement and the secessionist movement and terrorism. That is indeed the source of some of these spills.

Ms. BAIRD: Yes, well, that's right. And how much are the source is under dispute. It's obviously growing. You know, according to an Amnesty International report from last year, up until the mid-1990s, companies were saying, look, about roughly 50 percent, yes, it's our fault. It's due to corrosion, infrastructure problems, all those kinds of things. Now what is the dispute now is how much of it actually due to sabotage. We know it's a problem. The companies are saying it's about 80 percent.

A lot of the Amnesty workers on the ground found that some things were being called sabotage when there was actually parts falling apart and so on. But I do think that, you know, if sabotage is an issue and, obviously - I mean, it's a terribly violent atmosphere for a lot of oil workers to be operating in - then the companies need to actually have ways of responding to sabotage attempts very quickly, you know, if not kind of putting up - you know, putting things in that it would prevent them in the first place. So I think they kind of have to - instead of being victims of sabotage, they need to actually address that aggression more assertively themselves.

CONAN: Wouldn't the protection be the responsibility of the government?

Ms. BAIRD: Well, yes. But would regulation be the responsibility of the government? I mean, absolutely. I mean, I think they need to be working together. I mean, part of the problem is is that the regulatory agencies which have been looking after, you know, the monitoring of the situation and the spills has been reasonably toothless. And effectively, a lot of the companies are left to regulate themselves.

Yes, you'd think they would work in concert with the government to deal with the violence. But, you know, then they obviously also need to be responding very quickly to the spills as they happen. I mean, the sabotage that we've - the companies are claiming that the production went down by 20-odd percent between 2006 and 2009 due to sabotage efforts alone. So it is a very real problem.

CONAN: You're saying that if the oil companies are effectively a law unto themselves and regulate themselves, they ought to be the order unto themselves too, and provide for that as well?

Ms. BAIRD: Well, I mean, look, if it's costing them so much and it's causing so many problems, then certainly you would think they would be more assertive, you know, front-footed in working with the government to ward them off. I mean, they are - look, Goodluck Jonathan has been trying. He's been issuing cautions, you know? I think the problem is the punitive measures haven't been particularly punitive. And there's been kind of a growing kind of feeling, especially since people have watched, and Nigerians have been watching what's happened in America, and the response to the Gulf and the interest in the president.

And there had been a couple of, you know, court cases recently where companies have been ordered to pay compensation for spills going back as far as 1970. So there is kind of a move - mood of accountability. But unless actually they're severely punished for it, I mean, the environment of, you know, self-regulation in inverted commas is going to continue. I mean, this problem, it's a very complex and difficult issue, but I think there's a lot of human rights of the local people at stake and since their access to health - sorry, access to water and to food and their basic health.

CONAN: We're talking with Julia Baird of Newsweek about her article "Oil's Shame in Africa." 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Mark(ph) is on the line from Los Gatos in California.

MARK (Caller): Hi, good afternoon or good morning. I used to live in Nigeria for about nine years. I was there during General Gowon's regime as well as Olusegun Obasanjo and also Shehu Shagari. We lived in Lagos, so I was never down in the east, in Benin or Port Harcourt or any of those areas. But, you know, I'm sure the (unintelligible) lady's on the phone - the Australian lady, I think, who was on the phone. I mean, corruption - knows about this corruption in Nigeria.

You can have all the laws you like over there. It all comes down to, you know, who is going to pay off who. And, you know, as everybody knows, you know, there are leaders in Nigeria who just - who get incredibly wealthy. They pay lip service to the country - the governments out here that want regulation. But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, why is a country that has almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia has a 10th of the infrastructure? I mean, where does the money go? It's thoroughly corrupt over there, and the laws don't make any difference. And nobody really cares about the people in Benin except the people there.

I mean, it's just - let's keep them quiet, you know, pay the chiefs off, pay the people at the top off. They'll keep some of the other people under control. And so, it's left down to this sort of terrorism, because local people don't get any response from anybody unless they go and blow something up or, you know.

CONAN: Well, Julia Baird, you can attest to the accuracy of both young and Australian if you'd like, but corruption?

Ms. BAIRD: I'll take, young, yes.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. BAIRD: Yes. Australia is definitely a fact. Yes, (unintelligible) that correlates exactly with what I've been writing about corruption, and, obviously fueling a lot of the anger because if you - as you say, I mean, 1 percent of the wealth of the country, which had come from oil -sorry. One percent of the country has been taking like 75 percent of the royalties that come from oil, at least $600 billion. At lot of it is siphoned into offshore accounts. The corruption is incredibly frustrating. And, but surely there's kind of got to be some kind of pressure or scrutiny. I know that, you know, elections coming up there are certainly a lot of activists who are trying to draw the eyes of the world to what's going on there, to at least the environmental problems, which in the end, you know, impact all of us. If not, you know, at least the extreme quality of the Nigerian people.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

MARK: Sure. No worries.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Cynthia(ph), Cynthia with us from Vernon, New York.

CYNTHIA (Caller): Hi, Neal. Hi, journalist. I didn't catch your name, sorry.

CONAN: Julia Baird. That's okay.

CYNTHIA: Julia. Okay, Julia, a little historical point. About 15 years ago, we had a wonderful, huge nonviolent witness against the Royal Shell Company in Nigeria. We had it on the Connecticut Avenue near the Hotel Sheraton, which is another hotel now. But, and we had all the - it was (unintelligible) and it was at the time of the 50-year anniversary of the - what do you call that? The World Bank and IMF - money fund.

CONAN: International Monetary Fund.

CYNTHIA: Yeah, thanks. And then, all of the sudden, nothing is happening and it goes on from '96 to what year is it now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CYNTHIA: And nothing changes. And the thing I remember is that the Army there, they were killing those - some of those oil workers. That's how they dealt with the people who were activists. And those courageous women got out - they had - but not too much on the media here about anything like that. So give me your comments about that.

CONAN: And I wanted to - thank you very much, Cynthia, - and put that in the context of this email also, we got from Sommie(ph): It's incredible to hear about the incredible amount of pollution caused in the Niger Delta. Is life more expendable just because it's in a less developed nation?

Ms. BAIRD: Well, yes. I mean, that's exactly the question here. And Cynthia is right when she talks about happened with Ken Saro-Wiwa, the poet and activist who was killed. It was in 1995 or 1996, which is, I know, of great scrutiny - far greater scrutiny of this issue. Nigeria briefly expelled from the Commonwealth of Nations. And actually, only just last year, Shell agreed to pay 15 - more than 15 million dollars to settle the suit by saying they're not recognizing that they were in concert with the government in killing him and eight other activists but that they wanted to compensate his family, in particular his son, to grievance court.

So, yes, that was very overt and a lot of international attention was focused. And it appears to have trailed off. I mean, you can only hope that as we become so - I mean, if the oil is literally lapping up on our own shores and we've seen the devastating effect of, kind of, you know, not-tight-enough regulations, then it's far greater here when it comes to oil spill and response for a whole number of reasons. But you can only hope that we can then start to look at other regions which have been devastated by this to ask some questions about whether the international community can, in fact, you know, do anything about it or apply any pressure.

CONAN: Our guest, again, Julia Baird of Newsweek Magazine, where she's deputy editor. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Byron(ph) in El - El Cerrito, excuse me - in California: How can American citizens work to get American oil companies to reduce their dealings with Nigerian officials that continue to, one, let spilled oil stand without cleanups, and two, deny economic improvements/oil revenues to people in the Nigel Delta? These are not all-American companies. You mentioned Royal Dutch Shell. But Exxon Mobil is an American company.

Ms. BAIRD: Yes, sorry. How can we apply more pressure?

CONAN: Yeah, how can we get American oil companies to reduce their dealings with Nigerian officials that continue to let oil stand without being cleaned up?

Ms. BAIRD: Right. Well, I mean, 10 percent of our oil does come from Nigeria. I mean, I've really scratched my head about this because I mean, the way - you know, international law isn't as helpful as you might hope because this is a private company dealing, you know, within state borders. And, you know, it's a private company. If just look at Shell in this instance, which has a lot more money than Nigeria. so it's a kind of a disproportionate - you know, in that circumstance, what can we do? I mean, I think we can start to talk about whether we should have some kind of global coordination and planning process.

Whether we talk about in particular, I mean, I was speaking to Rebecca Bratspies, professor of law in New York, who said that perhaps we should ensure that oil companies cannot drill on - I mean, this sounds so obvious, it's amazing we haven't done it already - but the companies cannot drill unless they have the proven technology and capacity to respond to leaks or to explosions or to saboteurs. I mean, so if we made it a requirement, this would actually, you know, lead to a tremendous spur in innovation in cleanup technology. I mean, one of the problems in the Gulf was that they said, you know, they didn't actually have the technology at hand. If you go back to look at some of the documents put out by the Coast Guard in 2002, they warned of that.

But unless it was actually a requirement, the companies would not invest in any appropriate technology unless they were forced to. And there's got to be some way that we can talk about doing that at a global level given these are global companies that, you know, that we all support in different ways.

CONAN: Well, a lot of states would see that as international intervention in their business. But that's another question.

Ms. BAIRD: That's true. But we - what did it with - you know, with diamond trades, for example. I mean, it's certain that the Kimberley diamond pact or however it's said, certainly talks about various standards that need to be applied.

CONAN: I wanted to get to this email, a question from Joe(ph) in Minneapolis. Has the Nigerian anti-corruption minister Nuhu Ribadu made any headway against Nigeria's corrupt oil infrastructure? He did some good in 2003, 2008 when he was dismissed by political enemies and has now just returned.

Ms. BAIRD: Well, that - I don't actually know what he's done since he has returned, but you can only hope. As I said, there seems to be an environment even in the last few months where people are speaking out a little bit more about it and governments are calling on Goodluck Jonathan to give the regulatory agency some teeth.

So, you know - and also to follow-up - I mean, things like, for example, let's talk - if we talk about - look at gas flaring which is acknowledged globally to be a very dirty way, a very polluting thing to do with the gas product. You can actually collect it. We're not allowed to do it in the U.S. In 1984, Nigerian courts said, we probably shouldn't really do that in Nigeria. It's still going on.

I mean, even a couple of years ago, again, a court said - ruled against it. And it continues. I mean, it's kind of so frustrating to see how even the most basics of rulings are not adhered to. But, again, I mean, the results are - you know, they're kind of disastrous, I think, for the people living in the Niger Delta, when you can see these photographs of them kind of not just trudging through pools of oil, but at night, the sky is illuminated by these gas flares which are putting toxins into the atmosphere.

CONAN: Julia Baird, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Ms. BAIRD: My pleasure.

CONAN: Julia Baird, deputy editor at Newsweek, her most recent article "Oil's Shame in Africa." She joined us by phone from Philadelphia.

Tomorrow, life as a widow, adjusting to life without the lifetime partner. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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