Nigeria’s oil spill agency, NOSDRA, says that Shell’s Bonga oil spill “is likely the worst [offshore spill] in a decade.”

Peter Idabor of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency told The Associated Press on Thursday that oil from the spill in Shell’s Bonga field has spread to roughly 100 nautical miles. Idabor said he expects oil to begin washing ashore on Nigeria’s southern coast later Thursday.

Some of the largest recorded oil spills in Nigeria have been offshore marine spills like Bonga. Fisherpersons (rather than regulators) are usually on the frontlines of oil spill detection.[1] Regular spills have devastated the basic human rights of local communities who depend upon fishing for their livelihoods. According to some commentators, Nigerian ‘Bonny light’ crude is believed to spread especially thinly on the surface of water, resulting in a quicker, wider radius of contamination than heavier forms of crude.

Shell’s appalling record of oil spills in Nigeria dates back over 50 years and has shown no signs of improvement. In November 2011, NOSDRA Director General Peter Nduka was quoted as saying that:

Shell Petroleum Development Company alone had a record of 513 oil spills over the last couple of years and that the spills were yet to abate.

NOSDRA: taking a stand?

Once described as a “muzzled watchdog”, the Nigerian agency responsible for tackling oil spills has in the last few months shown potentially significant bite.

NOSDRA’s task of monitoring and responding to incessant oil spills in the Niger Delta is not an easy one. A small, under-resourced team of Nigerian inspectors cover a network of onshore pipelines and oil facilities that stretch over an area the size of Portugal, not to mention the expanding and largely unregulated offshore platforms, rigs, floating production, storage and offloading vessels (FPSOs) and oil tankers.

Effective egulation of offshore facilities is well beyond the capacity of Nigeria’s inspection regime. Oil giants like Shell and Exxon-Mobil with substantial offshore facilities operate without adequate oversight and repeatedly cause marine pollution with impunity.

The vast scale of Nigeria’s oil infrastructure is just one of NOSDRA’s many challenges. The regulator depends for transport on the same oil companies they are supposed to police. Political obstacles also remain. Turf wars with the Department for Petroleum Resources and state oil company, NNPC, have stunted NOSDRA’s effectiveness. Moreover its powers to enforce environmental regulations are limited to relatively token fines.

But NOSDRA may be renewing efforts to enforce higher standards on an oil industry known for over 50 years of environmental devastation in the fragile Delta region. Since October, NOSDRA has slapped substantially higher fines on major (and minor) players in the industry and heavily condemned corporate practices. In theory at least, Shell should face a steep fine for its latest spillage from Bonga.

  • Indian oil firm, SEEPCO,[2] which is listed on the NYSE was fined N68 million ($413,000) for failing to report an oil spill from its facilities in Okpai-Oluchi, in Delta State. According to NOSDRA, the oil spill lasted for 136 days, causing severe pollution. Only after the local community petitioned the government, SEEPCO conducted a Joint Investigation Visit to the site on 9 July.
  • Nigerian State owned Pipeline and Products Marketing Company Limited (PPMC) was fined N21.5 million ($130,000) for failure to report a spill in summer 2011 and non-compliance with the law.
  • Italian oil major Agip was fined N1 million ($6,000) for failing to immediately contain recover and clean up an oil spill from its gas plant at Obrikom Omoku in Rivers State. The impacted site was further polluted when the oil spill caught fire.

These fines are still relatively tiny and will not provide an effective deterrent against pollution by oil giants. 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.

Statutory fines for pollution in Nigeria are simply not commensurate with the long-term damage caused by oil spillage and high costs of remediation. Estimates of the total cost of cleaning the Niger Delta vary from between $20bn – $500 billion, and the UN says that the process could take up to 30 years.

Nigerian regulators need real powers, but the Petroleum Industry Bill is set to further weaken an already chaotic system. Until Nigerian the government clamps down on polluters and diversifies its policies and economy away from heavy dependence on oil, the onus is on home states such as the UK, EU and US governments to fill the void and hold corporations like Shell and Exxon-Mobil to account through judicial mechanisms and government sanctions.

[1] See reports of Exxon-Mobil’s spill at Qua Iboe facility on May 1 2010, which was detected by fishermen and Exxon-Mobil later confirmed oil deposits on the shoreline of Ibeno community.

[2] SEEPCO stands for Sterling Oil Exploration and Energy Production Company Ltd.