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USA/Nigeria: By Way of Comparison

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jun 5, 2010 (100605)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The estimates are at best approximate on both sides on the equation, but six weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the cumulative oil spill has now reached a bit more than 3 times that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez. It is still dwarfed, however, by the estimated equivalent of 30 Exxon Valdez spills discharged into Ecuador's Amazon by Chevron/Texaco over 3 decades, or more than 50 Exxon Valdez spills into the Niger Delta by Shell, Chevron, and other companies over 5 decades.

[The estimates are of course approximate, on both sides of the equations, but the orders of magnitude at least are likely to be correct. For those doing their own checking on-line, note that measurements are sometimes given in tons, sometimes in barrels, and sometimes in gallons. The Exxon Valdez spill was approximately 271,000 barrels. There are 42 gallons to a barrel, and 7.33 barrels to a metric ton.]

The current BP spill, and the certain long-term damage to the U.S. Gulf coast, may be a wake-up call for drilling offshore of American waters, But the awakening will be far from complete unless it also leads to raised consciousness about the deadly consequences of collateral damage from oil production in places far removed from the media spotlight. In the major media, however, only a few voices have begun to make the connection.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from three documents with summaries of available data on oil spills in the Niger Delta, an Amnesty International report from 2009, a report by independent experts in 2006 entitled the "Niger Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Project," and a 1999 report by Human Rights Watch.

For recent articles also making comparisons with oil spills in the Amazon and in the Niger Delta, see

Bob Herbert, "Disaster in the Amazon," June 5, 2010

"Africa's oil spills are far from U.S. media glare" Reuters, May 19, 2010

"Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it" The Observer, May 30, 2010

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Nigeria, including many focused on oil production and the Niger Delta, see

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Petroleum, pollution and poverty in the Niger Delta

AFR 44/017/2009 Amnesty International June 2009 / direct url:

2.1. Oil Spills

The Niger Delta has suffered for decades from oil spills, which occur both on land and offshore. Oil spills on land destroy crops and damage the quality and productivity of soil that communities use for farming. Oil in water damages fisheries and contaminates water that people use for drinking and other domestic purposes. There are a number of reasons why oil spills happen so frequently in the Niger Delta. Spills result from corrosion of oil pipes, poor maintenance of infrastructure, spills or leaks during processing at refineries, human error and as a consequence of deliberate vandalism or theft of oil.

In the 1990s corrosion was acknowledged as a major problem with oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta. Infrastructure was old, and many pipes were above ground. In 1995 SPCD admitted that its infrastructure needed work and that corrosion was responsible for 50 per of oil spills. The company began a program of upgrading oil pipes and infrastructure (see page 59 for further discussion on SPDC's action to address oil pollution).

However, today companies increasingly maintain that the majority of oil spills are caused by sabotage and not by their poor infrastructure or operational problems. Communities, and many NGOs, strongly disagree over the number of spills that are attributed to sabotage, and accuse companies of designating controllable spills as sabotage in order to avoid liability for compensation.

There is no doubt that sabotage, vandalism of oil infrastructure and theft of oil are serious problems in the Niger Delta, although the scale of the problem is unclear. Sabotage ranges from vandalism by community members to theft of oil and deliberate attacks by criminal groups. Some people damage pipes while trying to steal small quantities of oil for sale at local markets or for personal use. Others damage pipes and installations to extort compensation payments or clean-up contracts from companies. The increase in community sabotage activities (as opposed to organised theft, described above) is a reflection of wider problems that exist in oil-affected areas of the Niger Delta. For some people, causing an oil spill and getting a clean-up contract or compensation44 is the only way they can access any benefit from the oil operations.

Establishing the Scale of Oil Spillages

The amount of oil spilt since oil production began in 1958 is not known with any certainty. As far as Amnesty International could ascertain, there has been no published study that looks specifically at the scale of oil spills in the Niger Delta. The scale of the problem can, however, be inferred from three pieces of data:

  • Figures that are available for oil discharged on land and at sea.
  • Figures on the number of sites needing remediation (these are sites that have been affected by oil pollution in the past and which are considered to need rehabilitation of some sort).
  • Expert testimony of environmental and oil experts who have lived and/or worked in the Niger Delta.

Available Figures for Oil Spills

Oil spill figures vary considerably depending on sources, and figures are contested. Only SPDC reports publicly, from year to year, on the number of spills in its operations. Between 1989 and 1994 the company reported an average of 221 spills per year involving some 7,350 barrels of oil per year. The Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) has reported that 4,835 oil spill incidents were recorded between 1976 and 1996, with a loss of 1.8 million barrels of oil to the environment.49 These data are based mainly on what companies report to the DPR. According to UNDP, more than 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001, with a loss of approximately 3 million barrels of oil. Both local and international environmental experts claim that the system for reporting of oil spills in the Niger Delta has been completely dysfunctional for decades, and that the figures provided by the companies and reported by DPR do not reflect the full scale of oil spillage.

Drawing on available data, a group of independent environmental and oil experts visiting the Niger Delta in 2006 put the figure for oil spilt, onshore and offshore, at 9 to 13 million barrels of oil over the past 50 years. The experts took into consideration all sources of oil discharged into the environment, including oil in process water, oil discharges from tanker washing, oil in gas flares, oil spills from vehicle and road tanker accidents and used oil dumped in the Delta, as well as spills during the Biafran war, when many oil installations were either bombed or sabotaged. To put this into perspective, people living in the Niger Delta have experienced oil spills on par with the Exxon Valdez every year over the last 50 years. Despite this, the government and the companies have not taken effective measures over these 50 years to prevent oil spills from recurring, or to properly address the impacts of oil spills.

Pollution-affected Sites Needing Rehabilitation

Under Nigerian oil industry regulations, oil spill sites should be rehabilitated. This means that the soil and/or water at those sites should be treated to deal with the impacts of pollution and restore them as far as possible to their normal state. The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) - which was established in 2006 - has tried to identify all sites needing remediation in the Niger Delta. As of April 2008 it had identified approximately 2,000 sites. The majority of these sites were apparently SPDC sites. Although neither NOSDRA nor the oil companies would provide any information on the size or location of the sites, or the level of pollution, the fact that some 2,000 sites needed rehabilitation in 2008 gives an indication of the widespread nature of the problem. NOSDRA told Amnesty International that some of these sites had been polluted more than once.

Expert Testimony

Expert testimony gathered by Amnesty International from local and international experts concurred in the view that oil spills have been widespread, under-reported (particularly in the early years of operation and in cases of small-scale spills) and a cause of serious environmental damage.56 According to the Head of the Port Harcourt Institute of Pollution Studies (IPS), "there is virtually no week when the Niger Delta does not have an oil spill...".

Niger Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Project

Phase 1 - Scoping Report

Federal Ministry of Environment, Abuja Nigeria Conservation Foundation, Lagos WWF UK CEESP- IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy

May 31, 2006

Full document available through Google search for "Niger Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment"

Executive Summary

Fifty years after the discovery of oil in Nigeria's Niger Delta, an independent team of experts from Nigeria, the UK, and the United States convened by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation concluded that the Niger Delta is one of the world's most severely petroleum-impacted ecosystems. This conclusion was reached after a Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration scoping visit to the Niger Delta from May 21 - May 29, 2006. The team of experts, with participation by Nigeria's Ministry of Environment, WWF UK and the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy visited Delta communities and spill-damaged sites in Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta states, met with community and youth leaders, and convened a 2-day workshop of leading government and non-governmental experts in Port Harcourt May 25 - 26.

The 70,000 square kilometers Niger Delta contains 7,400 of West Africa's 20,000 square kilometers of mangroves, and is considered one of the 10 most important wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world. Millions of people depend upon the delta's natural resources for survival, including the poor in many other West African countries who rely on the migratory fish from the Delta. The region contains many threatened species found nowhere else in the world, including several primates, ungulates and birds.

Among the preliminary findings of the independent team were:

1.An estimated 9 million - 13 million barrels (1.5 million tons) of oil has spilled in the Niger Delta ecosystem over the past 50 years, representing about 50 times the estimated volume spilled in the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Alaska in 1989. This amount is equivalent to about one "Exxon Valdez" spill in the Niger Delta each year.

2.The financial valuation of the environmental damage caused by 50 years of oil and gas activities in the region - taking into account the unique and productive character of the ecosystem as well as comparable valuations on other such ecosystems - would be tens of billions of dollars.

3.In addition to spills, damage from oil and gas operations in the region has included extensive habitat degradation from road building, forest clearing, dredging and filling; pollution from gas flaring and operational discharges, and increased population pressure from immigration to the region.

4.Oil development occurred in the Delta without a comprehensive, strategic plan which would have protected its natural resources. Many of the oil facilities and operations are located within sensitive habitats - including areas vital to fish breeding, sea turtle nesting, mangroves and rainforests - that have often been severely damaged, contributing to increased biodiversity loss and poverty.

5.The damage from oil and gas operations is chronic and cumulative, and has acted synergistically with other sources of environmental stress to result in a severely impaired coastal ecosystem and compromised livelihoods and health of the regions impoverished residents

6.Rural communities in the Niger Delta have suffered most of the environmental and social costs of 50 years of oil development, and claim to have received very little of the benefits. This is a significant contributor to the current violence, sabotage of pipelines/installations and instability in the region.

7.Oil companies operating in the Delta have not employed best available technology and practices that they use elsewhere in the world - a double standard. They can easily improve their environmental performance in the region. Old leaking pipelines and installations must be replaced immediately and dumping of waste must stop.

8.A comprehensive Environmental Restoration Programme should be developed and implemented immediately. This independent effort should be supported financially by the oil and gas industry in the region as well as International Development Agencies.

Subject to agreement with all parties, Phase II of the project (the remainder of 2006) will: 1) more concisely estimate natural resource damages caused by 50 years of oil and gas activities on the Delta; 2) develop a Restoration framework with budgets estimations, and an implementation plan, and; 3) develop specific recommendations to improve the environmental performance of the oil Industry in the region, particularly spill prevention and response preparedness.

Note: The project had participation from scientists and other experts from the Niger Delta region. The views expressed are those of the participants and authors and not necessarily those of their parent organizations.

The Price of Oil: Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria's Oil Producing Communities

Human Rights Watch January, 1999

[Excerpted from pages59-67; footnotes and full text of report available at]

Oil Spills and Hydrocarbon Pollution

According to the official estimates of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), based on the quantities reported by the operating companies, approximately 2,300 cubic meters of oil are spilled in 300 separate incidents annually. It can be safely assumed that, due to under-reporting, the real figure is substantially higher: conservative estimates place it at up to ten times higher.109 Statistics from the Department of Petroleum Resources indicate that between 1976 and 1996 a total of 4,835 incidents resulted in the spillage of at least 2,446,322 barrels (102.7 million U.S. gallons), of which an estimated 1,896,930 barrels (79.7 million U.S. gallons; 77 percent) were lost to the environment. Another calculation, based on oil industry sources, estimates that more than 1.07 million barrels (45 million U.S. gallons) of oil were spilled in Nigeria from 1960 to 1997. Nigeria's largest spill was an offshore well blowout in January 1980, when at least 200,000 barrels of oil (8.4 million U.S. gallons), according to oil industry sources, spewed into the Atlantic Ocean from a Texaco facility and destroyed 340 hectares of mangroves. DPR estimates were that more than 400,000 barrels (16.8 million U.S. gallons) were spilled in this incident. Mangrove forest is particularly vulnerable to oil spills, because the soil soaks up the oil like a sponge and re-releases it every rainy season.

Two serious spills took place in early 1998. On January 12, 1998, a major spill of more than 40,000 barrels of crude oil (1.7 million U.S. gallons) leaked from the pipeline linking Mobil's Idoho platform with its Qua Iboe onshore terminal in Akwa Ibom State. Mobil estimated that more than 90 percent of the oil had dispersed or evaporated naturally, though the spill traveled "hundreds of kilometers farther than expected," and some 500 barrels (21,000 U.S. gallons) washed ashore. By the end of February 1998, about 14,000 claims for compensation had been submitted from individuals or groups, totaling an estimated U.S.$100 million. About twenty communities, with a total population of about one million, were considered to be the worst hit, especially at the mouth of the Pennington River. Clean Nigeria Associates, an oil industry-funded spill-response cooperative, was mobilized to assist in containing the spill and dealing with its effects. However, shoreline cleanup had still not begun by January 28, because "staff had to train crew leaders and deliver appropriate gear to the sites," and as late as March some sites were still visibly contaminated. Mobil had not responded to requests from Human Rights Watch for further information about this spill at the time of going to press. On March 27, 1998, a further spill of 20,000 barrels (840,000 U.S. gallons) took place from Shell's Jones Creek flow station, Delta State, in the brackish water of the mangrove forest, killing large numbers of fish. Shell identified the cause of the spill as "pipeline failure" and closed in 110,000 bpd of oil from eight flowstations. According to Shell, relief materials, including food and water, were provided to the communities affected at the time, and clean-up of the spill has been completed. As of September 1998, production at Jones Creek remained closed, pending the outcome of a technical investigation into the cause of the spill.

As a result of the small size of the oilfields in the Niger Delta, there is an extensive network of pipelines between the fields, as well as numerous small networks of flowlines--the narrow diameter pipes that carry oil from wellheads to flowstations--allowing many opportunities for leaks. In onshore areas, most pipelines and flowlines are laid above ground. Many pipelines and flowlines are old and subject to corrosion: fifteen years is the estimated safe lifespan of a pipeline, but in numerous places in the delta pipelines aged twenty or twenty-five years can be found. SPDC stated that it completed a program for the replacement of older pipelines in swamp areas during 1996, and claimed that as a result the volume of spills due to corrosion was reduced by 36 percent compared to 1995. The company also stated that it planned to renew and bury 2,188 kilometers of lines by the end of 1998, and that all would by then be buried. Burial still requires clearing of the vegetation above the line, and though it reduces the chances of pollution through sabotage, it also makes leak detection more difficult.

DPR regulations require the body responsible for a spill to clean the site and restore it to its original state so far as possible. Soil at a spill site on land must contain no more than thirty parts per million (ppm) of oil after six months. SPDC official policy is that "All hydrocarbon and chemical spills in the vicinity of the company's operations shall be cleaned up in a timely and efficient manner." According to Shell, "All spills are investigated." The company starts with "an immediate visit [to the] site to locate the source of the leakage and to stop it. This is followed with the initiation of clean-up actions." However, in some cases it is clear that land affected by spills is not properly or promptly rehabilitated. At Kolo Creek flow station, a spill that Shell alleged was caused by sabotage occurred in July 1997, and was cleaned by putting contaminated soil into pits; one year later, during flood season, the community believed that a new spill had taken place when this oil was released back into the water. In Aleibiri, Bayelsa State, community members alleged in August 1997 that a spill dating from March 1997 had not yet been cleaned up. SPDC, which stated that the spill was caused by sabotage (a claim contested by local residents), said that the delay had been "because the community prevented access to the site to determine the cause of the spill and to clamp the hole," demanding "payments to appease their deities, relief materials and immediate cash compensation," while "ethnic clashes between Ijaws and Itsekiris in April, May and June caused further delay," because, during the Warri crisis, "SPDC restricted operations in the Western Division to essential activities to minimize movements on the water and the risk of hijack and further hostage-taking." Local activists contest this explanation, saying that the violence associated with the Warri crisis (see below) could not have prevented Shell gaining access to Aleibiri, many tens of kilometers away from the area of conflict. Shell states that the pipeline was finally clamped in July 1997, and that clean-up operations were to begin in August but were delayed until November because two barges and a crew boat were seized. In March 1998, local environmental activists reported that in the process of clearing the spill several hectares of forest had been set alight by a contractor who had collected contaminated material into heaps for burning. This method of clearing spills is not regarded as satisfactory by international standards, and in this case additionally appears to have been carried out in a negligent fashion, allowing a serious fire to occur. SPDC confirmed to an oil industry publication that a Shell contractor had set the blaze on March 25, damaging ten hectares, and that the procedures used were not in compliance with their requirements. Substantial losses were suffered as a result by several members of the community.

The effect on the environment of the contaminated "formation water" (also known as "produced water") separated from the hydrocarbon fluids with which it is mixed underground and deliberately discharged from flow stations and terminals is largely unevaluated. Formation water is in some cases treated to remove residual oil, but in other cases released directly into the environment. While the water discharged generally contains low concentrations of oil, its large volume, together with occasional oil spillages, could well have long term effects, depending partly on the ecological setting in which the discharge is made. In offshore locations or in areas with rapid drainage increased dilution reduces the polluting effects of the water; on land and in the swamp, however, the cumulative effect "can be devastating at some locations." A 1993 Shell environmental impact study near the Bonny terminal found high hydrocarbon content in the nearby creek indicating "poor or no treatment of effluent." At Abiteye, on the Escravos River in Delta State, Chevron has for several years reportedly pumped hot untreated formation water directly into mangrove creeks, not even piping it into the main tidal channel where it would be diluted and cause less damage. Another problem of unknown impact is the disposal of waste from oil facilities: according to a former employee, SPDC, for example, had no adequate facilities for treatment of oily or chemical waste (including polluted soil and debris) in its eastern division in 1994. Effluents from the refineries at Port Harcourt and Warri are usually discharged, after treatment, into adjoining creeks and rivers. Nearby communities have complained at the effects of these effluents on fish stocks.

The DPR sets a limit of 20 ppm hydrocarbon contamination for effluent discharged to nearshore waters and 10 ppm for inland waters; FEPA's limit is 10 ppm for coastal (nearshore) waters. In its 1996 annual report on "People and the Environment," SPDC indicated that the water discharged at its terminals (at Forcados, Bonny, and Ughelli) did not meet the FEPA limits, although Bonny and accidents and blowouts." Even when oil-in-water values have dropped below detectable limits, oil-in-sediment values can remain high. In the absence of serious independent scientific studies of the long term effects of hydrocarbon pollution in the Niger Delta, the damage caused by individual spills on the overall environment cannot be evaluated, though spills in other parts of the world have been noted to cause long term effects. Moreover, the lighter compounds that evaporate quickly (such as toluene and benzene) also have a relatively high solubility and can be toxic at very low concentrations. Whatever the long term impact on the environment, spills can be devastating for those directly affected, especially in the dry land or freshwater swamp areas, where the effects are concentrated in particular locations. Oil leaks are usually from high pressure pipelines, and therefore spurt out over a wide area, destroying crops, artificial fishponds used for fish farming, "economic trees" (that is, economically valuable trees, including those growing "wild" but owned by particular families) and other income-generating assets. Even a small leak can thus wipe out a year's food supply for a family, with it wiping out income from products sold for cash. The consequences of such loss of livelihood can range from children missing school because their parents are unable to afford the fees, to virtual destitution. Even if the land recovers for the following year, the spill has consequences over a much longer period for the families directly affected. Several farmers interviewed by Human Rights Watch affected by spills appeared dazed and practically unable to take in the consequences of a recent spill, or to estimate the costs, beyond a simple statement that they had no idea how they would now manage. In tidal salt water areas, where fishing grounds tend to be open, individual families are less likely to be totally wiped out, while spills will in any event disperse more quickly. Nevertheless, big spills can still have a significant economic effect: following the Mobil spill of January 1998, savings by fishermen into microcredit schemes set up at a B.P./Statoil development project at Akassa, on the Atlantic coast, dropped appreciably.

The overall effect of oil spills on the delta is effectively unknown: "Although the effects of oil on mangrove environments are well known and a large number of studies appear to have been carried out in the Niger Delta, available information is not sufficient to assess the present condition of the region with respect to oil spills." One zoologist, before his death perhaps the foremost expert on the ecology of the Niger Delta, commented to Human Rights Watch that "the bottom line is that the oil companies have never tried to find out what the effect of oil spills is; and those assessments that are done are useless and too late." Therefore, although one study concluded that, "When assessing the impact of the oil industry on the environment of the delta, it appears that oil pollution, in itself, is only of moderate priority when compared with the full spectrum of environmental problems in the Niger Delta,"149 this opinion, admittedly based on incomplete data, is challenged by environmentalists. The overall impact of oil spills is, in any event, irrelevant in assessing the impact of individual spills or the effect on a community of discharges from a particular flowstation. Moreover, as described below, it is also the case that many of the other environmental problems of the delta are due in whole or in part to the oil industry, and the distinction between hydrocarbon pollution and the other effects of oil operations and oil-led development is largely meaningless for the local communities.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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