A brief look: UN says Nigerian oil pollution worse than first thought


It’s been a bad week for Shell’s Nigerian operations. Forced on Tuesday to accept responsibility for a huge oil spill, the release of a UN report into oil pollution in Nigeria has revealed the situation is far worse than anyone’s been prepared to admit. The report’s rather diplomatic – not surprising given Shell paid for it – but its conclusions are a devastating indictment of the oil giant’s reckless Nigerian adventure.  

Thursday’s report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) into the state of oil pollution in Nigeria’s Ogoniland region revealed that the situation is much, much worse than Nigeria or the oil industry has ever acknowledged. The report was a monster, involving 4,000 samples analysed, 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled, 264 formal community meetings conducted, and 780 boreholes monitored. Its headline conclusion was sobering -cleaning up the mess will take 25-30 years and require an initial investment of $1 billion (the word “initial” was actually underlined in the report).

It noted: “Oil contamination in Ogoniland is widespread and severely impacting (on) the environment. Even though the oil industry is no longer active in Ogoniland, oil spills continue to occur with alarming regularity. The Ogoni population live with this every day.”

The report discovered extensive contamination of soil and groundwater, extraordinarily high levels of dangerous chemicals in some areas and a devastating impact on aquatic life. The drinking water of one community contained 900 times the recommended level of benzene, a known carcinogen.

Ogoniland’s natural geography has exacerbated the situation. Its high rainfall sends any spilled oil coursing through farmland and eventually ending up in the mangroves and creeks. The region’s soil lacks a continuous clay layer, meaning oil is able to seep directly into the water table.

The report lays the blame for this on Nigeria’s muddled regulations and regulatory bodies which interpret the rules differently. The oil industry has taken advantage of this to put the bare minimum of effort into clean-up operations. The report slammed Shell’s clean-up policies, which were intended to improve what came before, saying they “still do not meet the local regulatory requirements or international best practices”.

Given the cost of the clean-up operation, for which Shell, as the primary company operating in the delta, is likely to bear the brunt, and the spectre of paying out huge compensation claims, it might start making financial sense for the oil giant to take its environmental responsibilities more seriously.

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