Oil Pits Locals Against Companies, Government The American company Chevron faces disruptions -- big and small -- in its oil operations on a regular basis. The source of the trouble is a Niger Delta population that says it is not benefitting from the oil industry. Locals say the government and multinationals are colluding to keep the spoils for themselves.
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Oil Pits Locals Against Companies, Government

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Oil Pits Locals Against Companies, Government

Oil Pits Locals Against Companies, Government

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Former CIA Director Jim Woolsey joined a kind of war game this summer. The scenario included a disruption in the oil supply from Nigeria.

Mr. JIM WOOLSEY (Former CIA Director): There was a revolt in the south by some of the poorer tribes down there who sit on top of one of the world's largest oil deposits but get essentially no benefit from that.

INSKEEP: In that scenario, Nigeria's oil production stopped and world oil prices soared. That nightmare hasn't really happened, but Africa's biggest producer suffers smaller disruptions all the time. Today, we continue our series on Nigeria and energy with the violence at one company's gates.

(Soundbite of clanging noise)

INSKEEP: The American company Chevron runs this terminal surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire.

(Soundbite of buzzer)

INSKEEP: We're standing in front of a pair of double steel gates.

Visitors squeeze through a narrow gate. Then a guard slides steel pipes out of the way. After another gate and a security checkpoint, we reach the office of Ed McKinnon. He's the operations manager.

Mr. ED McKINNON (Operations Manager, Chevron): This is the Escravos Tank Farm, and by tank farm, we mean oil tanks. We don't raise fish here. Let me give you a little picture of the place.

INSKEEP: A map on McKinnon's wall shows red lines. They're pipelines spreading out from this place like crooked spokes on a wheel. They deliver oil from wells at sea and miles inland across the Niger River Delta.

Mr. McKINNON: A lot of these fields are very remote. They're in the swamp. We can only operate during daylight hours.

INSKEEP: Why is that?

Mr. McKINNON: Well, there is no rule of law here. As recently as night before last, we caught a couple of people that were up here cutting up flow lines and then they will take them out and sell them for structural steel, as far as we know.

INSKEEP: McKinnon keeps a stock of Coca-Cola in his office overlooking the swamp. He's worked in West Africa for years. He married an oil worker he met in Angola. Now they work together on these manicured grounds which we toured with Chevron employee Deji Haastrup.

Tennis courts.


INSKEEP: Tennis courts.

Mr. HAASTRUP: Yes, I mean, people live here and work here and they're spending their time here, so they need recreation. They try to make the best of a home away from home for them.

INSKEEP: Chevron's neighbors haven't made them feel at home. Protests and attacks often stop oil from getting to market from here. To understand why, we took a boat to a nearby village. It's in sight of Chevron's guard towers but in another world.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: We arrived on Sunday morning and heard a song across the pier. Residents of Ugborodo are in church. Women in green and blue dresses wave their hands in the air.

(Soundbite of parishioners)

INSKEEP: The parishioners live in corrugated metal shacks. Their main street is a trail of mud. Half-naked children follow us down that track. Residents say they've seen few benefits from the big business next door. They want more jobs or better schools.

Ms. HARRIET ODODO: Yes, there's no good school here, no good education here.

INSKEEP: Harriet Ododo is one of hundreds of local women who made international news in 2002. They took part in what Chevron employees like to call the women's invasion. In a pre-dawn raid, the women took boats into Chevron's private harbor and occupied the terminal.

Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) If the men and boys went, they would be accused of coming to steal. That's why the women decided to go.

INSKEEP: The women threatened to remove their clothes. That's a traditional way to embarrass men into listening. They closed the terminal for 10 days and that was a minor inconvenience compared to the next big disruption. In 2003, ethnic gunmen attacked the pipeline network. They snapped those red lines on the map in Ed McKinnon's office.

Mr. McKINNON: All of our swamp operations were shut in. That amounted to about a hundred and forty thousand barrels a day of production that was no longer available to us. The revenue loss has been, you know, on the order of $2 billion and counting because we still don't have that production on stream.

INSKEEP: At a time of growing demand, the ethnic attack on just one company in Nigeria has kept millions of barrels of oil off the world market. We asked an ethnic leader to explain the attacks, and that leader, Bello Obuku, said Chevron supports an oppressive government. He says oil companies remind him of a Nigerian general who was executed for aiding and abetting a coup.

Mr. BELLO OBUKU: So the oil companies should not aid and abet the central government. That is doing the wrong thing.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that the oil companies should be executed?

Mr. OBUKU: In which case, it's not the place of ...(unintelligible) to execute them.

INSKEEP: He says it's not for us to execute them, but he warns later that if his group is not better treated, the violence so far will seem like, quote, "child's play."

Mr. CHUCK TAYLOR (Executive, Chevron): The March 2003 event caused us to look at what do we need to do to try to make sure that what we're doing is more sustainable.

INSKEEP: Chevron executive Chuck Taylor says the company is now talking to ethnic leaders and refining the way it spends money on community development.

Mr. TAYLOR: The communities have expectations of us as oil-producing companies that are probably more appropriately--or certainly in other places in the world are more normally directed towards government, but we are more visible. We're in close proximity. You know, they have much greater access to us often than they do with government. So I think it's a natural outfall of that.

INSKEEP: Have they really hurt the company by shutting down all those wells for two years now?

Mr. TAYLOR: Oh, absolutely.

INSKEEP: So now Chevron has to break a cycle. Violence leads the company to promise new homes or schools. Chevron says it can't keep those promises because of more violence. That fuels more protests like this year's disruption. Residents of the nearest village invaded the Escravos terminal again. They cut through the fence. Nigerian soldiers met them on the other side. One protester was killed and videotape shows soldiers beating another.

(Soundbite of protest)

INSKEEP: Chevron depends on the protection of the military whose tactics can make even more enemies. Chuck Taylor's employer is now being sued after its military protectors burned a village.

Mr. TAYLOR: When we have a security situation, we have a breach, we try to ensure, you know, that they're doing things in a way that is respectful of human life and human rights. And--but at the end of the day, you know, we have to let government do its job when the situation calls for it.

INSKEEP: Still, Chevron representatives attended a peace meeting this summer. They listened for hours to residents demanding help.

Unidentified Man #2: We ...(unintelligible). This is our resources. Although we...

INSKEEP: One local leader shouted, `It's our resources,' and suggested where the money should go.

Unidentified Man #2: Should be given to us.

INSKEEP: `To us,' he said, for projects like new roads. The participants agreed only to meet again. The session was organized by a group linked to the Catholic Church. Afterward, we sat down with the moderator, Austin Onuoha.

Mr. AUSTIN ONUOHA (Moderator): So I guess it's a learning process for all the parties involved, and the only problem we have with oil companies, not just Chevron, is declarations on paper and actual activity on ground. They have all the good concepts. They have all the fine grammar and everything, but when it comes to implementation, it becomes a different kind of thing.

INSKEEP: You said earlier this is a learning process for all involved.

Mr. ONUOHA: Yes.

INSKEEP: What is it that the communities still have to learn?

Mr. ONUOHA: I think the time for anger has passed. What we need to do is sit down, identify our entry points into the oil companies. There are people in the oil companies that will be prepared to help.

INSKEEP: Chevron is reaching out and also increasing security. At the Escravos terminal operations, manager Ed McKinnon has a chart of the company's new warning system.

Mr. McKINNON: And the codes are shown there. Code one is no known threat. Code two is perceived threat of civil unrest. Code three is a direct threat or actual occurrences of civil unrest. And currently in Escravos we are on code three.

INSKEEP: The scale continues up to code six, a total breakdown of law and order, exactly the nightmare imagined in that recent war game in Washington.

(Soundbite of gate)

INSKEEP: Photos of the terminal and its neighbors are at npr.org. Our series continues tomorrow with a warlord who warned of the oil field's destruction.

(Soundbite of drumming)


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