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While the news about British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizon platform blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is on a 24-hour news feed, it took a long boat ride and some serious slogging by John Vidal of The Observer (UK) to uncover a bigger and far deadlier oil spill near the village of Otuegwe in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.
“We lost our nets, huts and fishing pots. This is where we fished and farmed. We have lost our forest,” Otuegwe’s leader, Chief Promise, told Vidal.
The culprits in Nigeria are Shell and Exxon Mobil, whose 40-year old pipelines break with distressing regularity, pouring oil into the locals’ fishing grounds and drinking water. The Delta supports 606 oil fields that supply close to 40 percent of U.S. oil imports.
This past May, an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured in the state of Akwa Ibon, dumping more than a million gallons into the Delta before it was patched. According to Ben Ikari, a writer and member of the local Ogoni people, “This kind of thing happens all the time in the Delta…the oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care, and people must live with the pollution daily. The situation is worse than it was 30 years ago.”
Just how bad things are is not clear, because the oil companies and the Nigerian government will not make the figures public. But independent investigators estimate that over the past four decades the amount of oil released into the Delta adds up to 50 Exxon Valdez spills, or 550 million gallons. According to the most recent government figures, up to June 3, Deepwater Horizon had pumped between 24 to 51 million gallons into the Gulf.
Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is also one of the best endowed in terms of natural resources. Yet, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. As is the case with many oil-rich developing countries, oil reserves have proved a mixed blessing for Nigeria. Since 1974, only 14 years after independence, oil production for export has been by far the main source of revenue for the government. Today, oil sales account for more than 40 percent of GDP, 80 percent of the government's budgetary revenue, and more than 95 percent of exports. With an average production of approximately 2 million barrels per day, Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil produc-ers. However, due to a persistent fall in oil prices, Nigeria's external debt has risen to an unprecedented level in the last decade; inflation is rampant, and per capita GNP has fallen to levels comparable to or lower than those estimated in the mid 1960s, when oil exploration began in earnest..
BODO, Nigeria — Big oil spills are no longer news in this vast, tropical land. The Niger Delta, where the wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on the surface, has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless.
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.
We witnessed the slow poisoning of the waters of this country and the destruction of vegetation and agricultural land by oil spills which occur during petroleum operations. But since the inception of the oil industry in Nigeria, more than twenty-five years ago, there has been no concerned and effective effort on the part of the government, let alone the oil operators, to control environmental problems associated with the industry.