- Ever since the discovery of oil in Nigeria in the 1950s, the country has been suffering the negative environmental consequences of oil development, a new US government report concludes. In the Niger Delta region, the centre of the country's oil industry, environmental damage has been especially large and not taken seriously until now.
According to an environmental report by the US government agency Energy Information Administration (EIA), released today, Nigeria faces tough challenges to mitigate the damages accumulated over five decades, especially in the Niger Delta.
The Niger Delta's main environmental challenges result from oil spills, gas flaring and deforestation, the report found. "Oil spills in the Niger Delta have been a regular occurrence, and the resultant degradation of the surrounding environment has caused significant tension between the people living in the region and the multinational oil companies operating there," EIA says.
It was only in the past decade that environmental groups, the Nigerian federal government, and the foreign oil companies that extract oil in the Niger Delta had begun to take some steps to mitigate these damages.
According to EIA, there have been over 4,000 oil spills in the Niger Delta since 1960, and gas flaring from oil extraction has resulted in serious air pollution problems in the area.
One of the most visible consequences of the numerous oil spills has been the loss of mangrove trees. The mangrove was once a source of both fuelwood for the indigenous people and a habitat for the area's biodiversity, but is now unable to survive the oil toxicity of its habitat.
The oil spills also had an adverse effect on marine life, which has become contaminated, in turn having negative consequences for human health from consuming contaminated seafood.
The Niger Delta region remains fraught with ethnic unrest due to this environmental degradation. The Ogoni people of the region has protested that not only have foreign oil firms degraded the local environment, but that the Nigerian federal government also has acquiesced by not enforcing environmental laws and regulations.
Clashes between Ogonis and security forces have resulted in numerous deaths. Protest actions occur with regularity, with local youths seizing oil platforms or taking hostages and forcing oil companies to withdraw their staff and/or to halt oil production until their demands are met.
- These protests are the result of the environmental degradation that has occurred, and is perceived to be continuing to occur, in the region as the result of oil development by multinational oil companies, the EIA report recognises.
The perceived indifference of both the Nigerian federal government and the oil companies to the environment in the Niger Delta has been exacerbated by Nigeria's lack of coherent pollution control policy.
Until recently, there was little incentive for power plants to implement pollution abatement strategies or for oil companies to undertake environmental remediation efforts, as the Nigerian federal government was unwilling or unable to enforce environmental laws, according to EIA. However, the Nigerian federal government has recently indicated that it is no longer willing to tolerate oil companies absolving themselves of their responsibility to reduce pollution.
Chief Ime Titus Okopido, the Minister of State in the Federal Ministry of Environment, noted that future drilling rights will be "closely determined by" companies' environmental compliance, in addition to their submission of an environmental impact assessment for the proposed site.
The Nigerian government during the last year has taken action to show it is now serious about enforcing environmental regulations. In March 2003, the Nigerian subsidiary of Shell was ordered to pay US$ 1.5 billion to the Ijaw people for the company's actions in the state of Bayelsa over a 50-year period.
A government committee that investigated Shell ruled that the company was responsible for a number of oil spills and environmental incidents, including an epidemic in 1993-1994 in which 1,400 people were killed that was blamed on a Shell oil spill.
The government committee further blamed the prevalence of cancer in the region on exposure to the company's oil spills, noting that Shell continually refused to pay compensation for these spills, and where it had, the payment was inadequate, according the US government report. US oil companies and their Nigerian subsidiaries traditionally have been the main oil producers in the country.
The EIA report, although noting that the Nigerian government has become much more active in enforcing its environmental laws and regulations, however holds that the Niger Delta will not large damages to its environment for many years to come. But also the oil companies had now understood that new demands had to be lived up to.
- As a result of the more stringent environmental regulations, oil companies that operate in the Niger Delta have begun highlighting their environmental performance, the report says. ChevronTexaco said in June 2003 that it had spent US$ 400 million over the course of the last decade on measures to protect Nigeria's environment and population.
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