Tuesday, July 19, 2011

UN: no one to blame for Niger Delta oil leaks

Radio Netherlands
19 July 2011

By Jannie Schipper

No one has been singled out for real blame in the as-yet-unpublished United Nations report on oil pollution in the Ogoni region of Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

Previous reports suggested the UN would hold local Ogoni people and not Dutch-based multinational Shell responsible for the large-scale oil leaks. It was suggested that this controversial conclusion had resulted in more than a year’s delay in publishing the report.

But ick Nuttall from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that's not true.

“From the outset, we made it absolutely clear that we were not in the blame game. This report does not point fingers at who is responsible and who is not responsible. It is simply a straightforward scientific assessment on the extent of the oil pollution, where it’s gone to, the human health implication and the wider environmental implication. And also, basically, how to get this mess cleaned up.”

The story that the report was being kept under wraps because of the very sensitive issues involved has done the rounds in the international media. It was thought a report in which those at Shell were the good guys and the Ogoni people the bad guys could lead to serious trouble in the Niger Delta region.

However, the UNEP says the report was delayed because not all the researchers had seen it. The official publication date also had to be negotiated with the new Nigerian government. It has been announced that it will finally be presented at the end of July.

Evert Hassink from the Dutch environmental group, Milieudefensie, says all this messing about has been bad for the region.

“No one likes the idea of the UN exonerating Shell and this has damaged UNEP's reputation of independence and led to the report not being taken seriously. But it’s really difficult to get all the Niger Delta’s ethnic groups and local and provincial administrations to sing from the same song sheet. This report should have played an important part in establishing a basis for cleaning up the delta. There shouldn’t be all sorts of rows and squabbling over things that aren’t even in the report.”

Shell stopped drilling for oil in Ogoni Land in 1993. The company has since published a website showing where the oil leaks are. The website details whether a leak was the result of technical problems or of sabotage or oil theft. Sabotage includes the total destruction of a pipeline because of a bomb attack and gradual leakage after a pipe has been sawn through. Theft involves the connection of a tap to a pipeline to siphon off the oil.

In 2009, 98 percent of leaked oil was caused by sabotage or theft; in 2010, the figure dropped to 80 percent, according to a Shell spokesperson. “Leaks are always repaired and are followed by a clean-up operation, even when local people or criminal groups are to blame.” Under Nigerian law, oil companies have to clean up pollution no matter who caused it.

The UNEP report may not be about blame, but many people still want to know who’s responsible. This would be important even if it were simply a question of who’s financially liable. Akinyinka Akinyoade from the African Studies Centre in Leiden points out that the historical context should also be taken into consideration.

“Shell has really not been operating on such a large scale in those areas over the past ten years. So surely you will not be able to say Shell is responsible, you can easily say it is directly related to militancy. But if we roll back, way back in time, then you can say: before militancy started, then what was responsible for the spills?”

In 1993, Shell stopped drilling in Ogoni Land, moving its operations to other areas of the Niger Delta. The Nigerian government has close links to the oil multinational and takes a share of the profits of oil exploitation.

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