Breaking years of silence, politicians and regulators in Nigeria are talking tough on oil spills in the aftershock of the BP disaster. Officials had stern words with Shell over its inadequate clean-up activities, and Exxon Mobil, who were ‘cautioned’ over a recent spill of over a million gallons. Upping the stakes, the governor of Delta State appealed to Goodluck Jonathan to launch criminal prosecutions against oil companies for decades of oil spills.
This rhetoric is welcome, but Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) is a muzzled watchdog, easily overshadowed by oil giants, like Shell. Under current regulations, a single payment of $7,000 to NOSDRA completely discharges oil companies from having to clean up major oil spills. Such token fines would be unthinkable in the US or UK, but companies like Shell have exploited the lack of oversight for decades, with widespread human misery and environmental devastation the result.
President Goodluck Jonathan must empower Nigeria’s environmental regulators to bite as well as bark. Allowing companies a free hand to pollute will continue to devastate the Delta’s marginalised poor, and make a mockery of Nigeria’s sovereignty.