Oil theft in the Niger Delta doesn’t explain all the oil spills

Bodo oil spill in the Niger Delta. © Media for Justice Project, Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD)

By Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Thematic Issues at Amnesty International

There are currently two competing narratives about oil pollution in the Niger Delta.

The first is that oil companies, particularly Shell, are responsible for massive pollution caused by leaks from their operations and for the failure to clean up spills and protect their infrastructure from damage.

This narrative acknowledges that oil theft and sabotage of oil infrastructure occur and contribute to pollution; however it cautions that theft and sabotage, as causes of pollution, are over-stated by oil companies in a bid to deflect criticism about their environmental impact.

The second narrative claims that almost all spills are caused by oil theft and sabotage and that companies are doing their best to combat this scourge. It goes on to say that the failure to clean up properly is generally due to the communities not letting the oil companies into the area to do the cleanup.

What both narratives accept is that the Niger Delta is massively polluted and that those living in the area are suffering the consequences.

The former lays the blame substantially (although not exclusively) at the door of the oil companies and the government of Nigeria’s pitifully weak regulatory system. The latter blames the communities themselves, local militants and criminals.

So which narrative is closer to the truth?

Human rights organizations including Amnesty International and environmental groups share the first argument while oil companies promote the second.

But the main difference between them is the evidence that underpins them.

Amnesty International and other NGOs have put significant evidence into the public domain that demonstrates that Shell has underestimated oil spilt due to operational failures and that the company is not transparent about the state of its infrastructure.

Amongst this evidence is a secretly videoed oil spill investigation where Shell changes the cause from “operational failure” to “sabotage” – doing so unilaterally, with no evidence and after the official investigation was completed. There is also evidence that the methodology used for calculating oil spill volumes is flawed and underestimates the amount of oil spilt.

Shell’s claims about the proportion of oil spilt due to operational problems rely almost exclusively on data that is compiled by Shell itself, with little or no meaningful oversight. The weakness of Nigeria’s oil regulators has been widely exposed. Most recently, the UN Environment Programme stated that regulators were “at the mercy of oil companies” when it came to visiting oil impacted areas. This echoed a 2006 finding by the UN Development Programme which stated that “oil companies, particularly Shell Petroleum, have operated for over 30 years without appreciable control or environmental regulation to guide their activities.”

Oil theft and sabotage of oil pipes are serious problems in the Niger Delta. But they will only be dealt with effectively when oil companies also come clean about the scale of operational spills and the condition of their infrastructure, and cease to use them as a way to avoid bad publicity about their environmental and human rights impact.

A Chatham House report released last Friday highlights the problem of large scale oil theft in the Niger Delta. The report focused on two kinds of theft: large-scale illegal bunkering operations involving organized extraction and transport (taps on pipes, boats for transport) and theft at export terminals, which it says are believed to account for most of Nigeria’s stolen crude. No doubt Shell will latch onto this report and – once again – attempt to suggest oil spills in Nigeria are largely outside its control.

But oil theft is not the same as oil spills. It is possible for theft to occur with little spillage. Small-scale theft may be more problematic in terms of oil spills than larger, professional operations. But the amount stolen is not the amount spilled. Data available on how much leaves the country as stolen oil underscores that oil theft figures are quite distinct from oil spill data.

There are other questions that arise if one scrutinizes the information available. One is the fact that many oil spills in the Delta are attributed officially to sabotage, not theft. Sabotage refers to acts that vandalize oil infrastructure, and it is often attributed (although not always accurately) to disgruntled community members seeking compensation. Another, longstanding, question is the age and condition of the pipes.

Most oil companies do not disclose complete information on their infrastructure. Evidence that has emerged from other sources, however, is alarming. For example, a US diplomatic cable from 2008, published by Wikileaks, stated that a contractor with many years’ experience of laying pipelines in the Niger Delta told the US consulate in Nigeria that “73 per cent of all pipelines there are more than a decade overdue for replacement.”

Oil theft does lead to some of the oil spill pollution that scars the Niger Delta. But establishing the extent to which oil theft, sabotage and aged and corroded pipes respectively are the cause of pollution requires something the Delta has never had: real transparency over the condition of oil infrastructure and the oil spill investigation process.

Shell began to do this to some extent in 2011 when it started to publish oil spill investigation reports, but has resolutely refused to disclose data on oil spill investigations that occurred earlier than this. Yet the company continues to use the undisclosed pre-2011 data to blame most oil spills on theft and sabotage.

Full transparency is vital to establishing real solutions to oil spills and oil theft. But those that resist this most are the oil companies. If they are committed to addressing the Niger Delta’s problems of theft, sabotage and oil spills, why will they not disclose the relevant oil spill investigation data?

Read more:

Nigeria: Oil giant Shell criticized over Niger Delta pipelines ‘sabotage’ claims (Press release, 19 June 2013)
Conflicts of interest and exclusion in Niger Delta oil spill investigation and clean-up (Blog, 13 May 2013)
Shell’s wildly inaccurate reporting of Niger Delta oil spill exposed (News story, 23 April 2013)
Shell’s Niger Delta pollution: the good, the bad and the ongoing quest for justice (Blog, 1 February 2013)
Nigeria oil judgment – A small step in the journey from travesty to justice (Blog, 21 December 2012)
Nigeria: The true ‘tragedy’: Delays and failures in tackling oil spills in the Niger Delta (Report, 10 November 2011)

Posted in Business and Human Rights, Corporate Accountability, Exploitation of Natural Resources, Nigeria | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

  1. brocas says:

    (I am a volunteer at Amnesty Int France )

    I was wondering if we could finally get access to the report on Niger Delta Environment Survey 2004 . I understand it has never been publicly relased but it is used as a reference in the bibliography of the last IUCN-NDP report .
    If IUCN quotes it , it should be accessible …. and IUCN should be jealous of her independance vs Shell, no ?
    This report maybe could give some interesting informations that we are missing in the pre-2011 period as you evokes in the before-the-last paragraph .

    Thanks for this argumented article

  2. ORCL says:

    The Article describes the Oil spells in Niger delta Posted on 24 September 2013 by News Team which has been investigated by the Amnesty international, a non-government organisation focused on human rights. My comments are based on the two competing narratives about the oil pollution in the Niger Delta which are discussed in the article, in regards to the corporate accountability as a part of my business ethics course.

    1. The First narrative is that the oil companies, particularly Shell, are responsible for massive pollution caused by leaks from their operations and for the failure to clean up spills and protect their infrastructure from damage.

    Following two oil spill incidents in the Niger delta in August and December 2008, amnesty in their website at http://www.amnesty.org, published a report on 10 November 2011 containing evidence of the oil spill and laments on the fact that these two incidents “have catastrophic consequences for tens of thousands of people of Bodo”. The report was based on an in-depth investigation into pollution caused by the international oil companies, in particular Shell, and the failure of the government of Nigeria to prevent pollution or sanction the companies”. These series of incidents reported in media since the two major oil spills in year 2008 and the subsequent reports published by amnesty international bring to the light the need of the hour i.e. corporate accountability.

    It is important for organizations to be conscious of the environment around them. The oil companies in Niger delta are not protecting the environment from being polluted, the stakeholders of the company will be in benefit as the company does not have to absorb the external costs of pollution. The utilitarian way of dealing with pollution is by internalizing the costs, the company should create wealth in ways that do not harm society and that protect society’s assets. The Company should take the moral responsibility to protect the environment where they are operating, especially for the companies related to oil, as they have more probability of polluting the environment if anything goes wrong. Spilling oil can harm living things because of chemicals deposits and are poisonous; they should take moral and ethical responsibility for the environment and towards the local communities where they actively drill for oil and make sure that there is no adverse effect on the animals, plants, marine life and people. The duty of the company should be to stop the pollution at its source by adopting self-monitoring practices to fix or replace the damaged equipment in its initial stage and internalize the costs of pollution to pay for all those who has been harmed, voluntarily or by law which would result in removing the burdens of external costs from the people affected by the pollution.

    2. The second narrative claims that almost all spills are caused by oil theft and sabotage and those companies are doing their best to combat this scourge. It goes on to say that the failure to clean up properly is generally due to the communities not letting the oil companies into the area to do the cleanup.

    Amnesty’s report clearly indicates that the investigation process into oil spill incidents has been disregarded several times by the corporates claiming sabotage. Complaints from the community were also disregarded. As we see from the series of incidents that it took at least three long years in unearthing the cause for the oil spills in the Niger delta. This refers to the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) where these oil companies claim to practice and attach greater importance to their social and environmental impact and they engage more with local communities. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model. CSR policy functions as a self-regulating mechanism where business monitors and ensures its active compliance with the letter of the law, ethical standards, and international norms. However it has not been noticed in this case as the major oil company changes the cause from “operational failure” to “sabotage” avoiding the policy of corporate social responsibility.

    The oil company Shell has the proportion of oil spill due to operational problems .The weakness of Nigeria’s oil regulators has been widely exposed. It should be the responsibility of the oil companies to have security measures to prevent oil theft which should be part of the business strategy. This would ensure that the number of oil theft claims leading to spills is prevented at the source. Recent reports on oil spills from Al-Jazeera claim that people affected by oil spills hope it will spur the Nigerian government to take the lead in investigating oil spills. But some doubt that will happen, because the Nigerian government is heavily invested in the oil sector. If the government puts pressure on those oil companies it is in partnerships with, they may leave Nigeria and decide to do business elsewhere. I believe that the government partnership with the oil companies should have proper conditions and rules in the agreement which would help the local communities and the environment to be hazard free and will keep the Companies to be in regulation and be proactive in handling hazardous situations.

    In conclusion, the oil companies should take moral and ethical responsibility to protect the environment caused by their operations .Thus the company should accept the full responsibility of the adverse effects of the oil spells and should compensate those who are affected by the pollution. The local government should act and put proper legislation in place for such things not to occur in future.

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