As BP’s Deepwater Horizon continues to exceed the company’s efforts to control it, the arrogance and irresponsibility of the oil major’s chief executive, Tony Hayward and his team has never been as clear. The consequences of BP’s mismanagement of the rig loom large, with estimated legal costs currently pegged at $60bn, and rising. Since the quantity of oil gushing from the damaged well and drilling riser is uncertain, the full extent of the legal liabilities is unknown.
The crude oil washing ashore in Louisiana is a sight all too familiar for impoverished communities in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta. Major spills, leaks, blow outs occur in the region on a daily basis, destroying livelihoods, environments and contaminating drinking water. Companies like Shell have avoided paying compensation to communities and inadequate clean-ups have worsened the ecological impacts. When compared to the spills in Nigeria, Deepwater Horizon is ‘drop in the bucket’. As columnist Chanan Tigay writes for AOL News:
Now a month old, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill still dominates the headlines, with politicians, pundits and ordinary people debating who’s to blame and wondering if it will eclipse the Exxon Valdez as the worst spill in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, Nigeria reportedly leaks as much oil as the Valdez — which spewed nearly 11 million gallons of crude into Alaskan waters in 1989 — every year, with little attention paid.
The sheer quantity of five decades of oil spills in Nigeria was estimated by an Environmental Damage Assessment conducted by WWF and Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment in 2006:
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.
The Gulf of Mexico spill is a national tragedy in the US, but oil affected communities in the global south, from the Nigerian Delta to Ecuador’s Amazon, have suffered similar tragedies every day of every year for decades. Yet the pollution in those locations is far easier for Western governments to ignore. In the absence of government controls over the irresponsible and devastating operations of oil majors like Shell and Chevron, it is up to global activists and lawyers to pursue accountability.