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Shell's floating monster spill

Posted Dec. 24, 2011 / Posted by: Becca Connors

(Editor's note: The following post is by Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International and director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria. I have made edits and inserted links into the text for clarification of Nigerian agencies, persons and other terms.)

Nigerians wait, helpless, for the massive spill from Shell’s Bonga offshore oil field to hit the coastal waters, shorelines and swamps. Telephone links to some of the coastal communities are tenuous at best and most people will not know what has hit them until they are down and out. Nigerian regulatory agencies, ill equipped to handle independent monitoring of spills of this nature, tell the world they are on top of the situation. That is the officialspeak. We are on top of everything. And yet we are swamped and barely keep our heads above water all the time.

The spill from the Bonga facility is said to have occurred while a vessel was being loaded with crude oil. Analysts say that the operators were apparently busy pumping crude oil into the ocean rather than into the vessel until the crude began to announce its misplacement in a way that could not be ignored. Shell claims that 40,000 barrels were dumped into the ocean before they stemmed the flow. That figure is sure to be an underestimate going from what we know of the industry whose major concern is unchecked profit and not the environment. This figure may have been carefully selected to match Mobil’s claim on its 1998 offshore spill that washed all the way down to the coasts of Lagos.

If you think that the pollution in the Niger Delta cannot be used as a benchmark to reach the conclusion that wisdom is found in mistrust of the oil sector, then we can look elsewhere. Consider the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Checking the timeline of that spill along with the volume of spill admitted by BP shows a trend where figures got larger as the evidence became more visible on account of the spread of the spill and due to pressure for transparency and action from the US government.

With Shell’s Bonga spill there is no sign of pressure from the Nigerian government. Shell is simply coasting home on a resistance-free ride on the black gold train. Ayo Obe, former president of the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), tweeted recently “Will GEJ Obama up?” That question, like many similar ones will likely go unanswered.

Shell’s Bonga floating, production, storage and offloading vessel is situated about 120 kilometres (75 miles) off shore and in one kilometre (.6 miles) deep ocean water. The deep-water facility is susceptible to high risks, comparable to BP’s Macondo field platform that exploded in April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. Floating on one kilometre deep water, ocean waves and other events can easily result in catastrophic incidents. To make matters worse, the offending company does not have an acceptable track record of handling oil spills in the onshore locations in the Niger Delta. Trusting Shell to handle the Bonga spill without vigorous monitoring is a mere pipedream.

So far the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency has not reported anything besides what Shell has announced. And everything Shell has announced presents a pretty face of a company pained by the accident and doing all it can to restore normalcy. It is deploying ships and aircrafts to tackle the spill. Chemical dispersants are being used in the fight and, oh thanks goodness, 50 per cent of the crude had already dissipated barely a day after the incident! Swallow that line and your mouth is certainly wider than that of the bonga fish.

Which brings us to the naming of oil fields after aquatic and terrestrial species. Bonga field is named after the bonga fish, a popular source of protein for most coastal communities in West Africa. Those flattish fish species are endemic in the Bonga field area. The implication is that Shell is actually shelling the bonga fish with her crude oil spill. And this has direct implications for local livelihoods -- hitting the fisherfolks first and others down the line.

A quick check of names of oil fields in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere shows that oil companies are steeped in the sarcastic pattern of naming their oil fields after species that their operations threaten. Perhaps this is an appropriate way to ensure that future generations could track what species existed where before the coming of the oil companies into those places.

The news being crafted around this Shell spill is that the current accident is the biggest in a decade. The fact is that we have to limit that comparison to offshore spills only. We have had quite recent massive onshore spills whose footprints remain indelible in the inland waters, swamps and forests of the Niger Delta. Shell's trans-Niger delta pipelines spewed close to 400,000 barrels of crude oil at Bodo City, Ogoni in two spills in 2008 and 2009. And we do not have to limit our memory to a decade. In late 1980, Texaco (Chevron) had a major spill at Funiwa and in that incident spewed 400,000 barrels of crude oil into coastal waters and destroyed 340 hectares (~840 acres) of mangrove forests.

A rupturing at Shell’s Forcados terminal in 1979 dumped 570,000 barrels into the estuary and adjoining creeks. And the current spill going by satellite images is heading towards Forcados. At a point up to 400 square miles of the ocean was covered by this spill. The environmental and livelihoods destruction of oil activities cannot be continued this way.

Shell must reveal the exact amount of crude spilled and the names and types of chemical dispersants used in fighting the spill. The company should also be made to pay adequately for the damage done. More importantly, the oil sector is clearly yielding a negative to our economy as well as the global climate and environment. Leaving off opening up new oil fields is the sensible way to the future. Cleaning up existing mess onshore and offshore should be the focus of the regulatory agencies. The people simply need a safe environment to carry on with their lives. It is the least we can expect.

For more information:

Bonga spill: Discountenance Shell, independently verify spill volumes, ERA/FoEN urges FG

Bonga spill update: Shell's bonga bungle

Satellite imagery of the spill via SkyTruth

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