Revolution #206, July 4, 2010

From A World to Win News Service

The Gulf of Mexico and the Niger River Delta: oil spills worlds apart

June 21, 2010. A World to Win News Service. The oil spill off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico is the kind of disaster people living in the Niger River Delta have suffered continuously for half a century.

Predatory pumping and almost unbridled burning of fossil fuels is killing the planet. But nowhere has oil brought more devastation than Nigeria. Making matters even worse, there is little effort to clean up this poison.

To give an idea of the scale of the catastrophe, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has spewed between 2-4 million barrels of oil in the two months since the blowout. Almost six million barrels have oozed and washed through Nigeria's main river delta over the last 50 years. Most of it has been concentrated in a thousand-square-kilometer [about 247,000 acres] area called Ogoniland.

The once-fertile land is dotted with puddles of crude oil. In many areas wild plants and cultivated crops like cassava are dead. Palm trees no longer yield much wine. The inland waterways and mangrove swamps, once rich in shrimp, crab and other fish, are lifeless. The birds are gone. The sea, for many people a source of life, has become a source of sickness and death. People emerging from the brackish waters of the delta find themselves coated with oil. The flares of gas deliberately set afire are so bright and unrelenting that in some villages it has been two generations since people have seen complete darkness.

"Nigerian light" is the world's best quality oil, prized because it is relatively easy to refine into fuel products. But it has been a curse for the people who live here, bringing asthma, skin diseases, organ disorders, and cancer. Average life expectancy has fallen for several generations. It now stands at little more than 40 years.

Foreign oil companies, led by the British-Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell, started drilling for oil here in 1958. The country ceased to be a British colony two years later, but it has never been independent of oil.

The Niger River Delta is criss-crossed by thousands of kilometers of pipelines. Many are four or five decades old. They are rusty, and they ooze oil—when they are not spouting streams of it high into the air. The columns of valves that sprout up above the bushes leak. The ancient terminals leak. Abandoned oil wells leak.

But new investment may make matters worse. It is being funnelled into offshore wells and pipelines—and they leak too. Already tar balls dot the coastline

As the world now knows, the newly developed deepwater rigs are potential weapons of mass environmental destruction. Super-deep underwater wells coming on line or in the planning stages ring the so-called "golden triangle"—the oil-rich Atlantic ocean basin ranging from the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil to Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Congo-Brazzaville. This planned new investment may bring Nigeria and other countries even worse devastation in the future. Similar projects threaten India and Indonesia.

Shell claims that most of the spillage in Nigeria is caused by sabotage and theft. If some people illegally drain oil from pipelines, it is because Shell has stolen their livelihood in all legality. Even if oil jobs were any compensation for environmental catastrophe, which they are not, the local Ogoni people aren't even getting that. And if there has been violence against Shell property in the course of the people's struggles against Shell, it has been in response to the violence Shell has inflicted on their lives and the part of the planet where they live. Shell has had the Nigerian military kill peaceful protestors and raid whole villages. In 1995, the military hanged playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni rights leaders.

Oil companies can sell oil at the world market price, but they can often hold down production costs when they drill it in countries where they don't have to observe global "best practices"—which, as we've seen in the Gulf of Mexico, are themselves far from foolproof. Oil spill rates (spill per length of pipeline) in Nigeria are among the world's worst, even without counting the pollution from wastewater and the gas flares. In the rich countries where the six Big Oil companies are based, gas from oil wells is usually captured, not burned to get rid of it. Obviously the harm done by the carbon dioxide flaring releases is global.

Shell (allied in Nigeria with France's Total and the Italian Eni), Mobil Exxon, Chevron and other oil companies have been able to invest less here than would have otherwise been necessary. They haven't had to build better facilities, perform better upkeep or dismantle obsolete or derelict equipment. Nigerian law calls for spills to be stopped and clean-up to begin within 24 hours, but major leaks continue for months or years. When clean-up does take place, it usually involves digging a hole and dumping the oil or oil-coated dirt into it, or burning pools of oil, methods that get rid of the obvious evidence but create permanent environmental damage, ruin agriculture and sicken and kill people. (See "Double Standards? International Best Practice Standards to Prevent and Control Pipeline Oil Spills Compared with Shell Practice in Nigeria," by Professor Richard Steiner, double standards.pdf)

While the burning of fossil fuels is by far the biggest component in global warming and other grave threats to humanity and the Earth's ecosystems, the profitability of oil and its central role in so many other profitable industries means that it is the lifeblood of the capitalist world economy. Four of the world's seven most profitable corporations are oil companies. Therefore oil is also the object of a life and death competition between companies and imperialist powers. The cost of damage to the environment and people is not factored into the costs of any company. Even though some companies may be forced to pay out a little from time to time when spills occur under particular political circumstances, the economic system's dependence on fossil fuel is enormously harmful even when everything goes "right."

Further, this contradiction that is built into the capitalist system, between the cost capitalists pay for production and the real social cost, intersects with another inherent feature of the imperialist system, the division of the world into a handful of monopoly capitalist oppressor countries and the nations they oppress. Consequently, although all humanity lives on the same planet, much of today's environmental nightmare is concentrated in the oppressed countries like Nigeria.

The same factors that make Nigeria so attractive to oil companies and make their investments such a source of nightmares for the people are at work in other industries and in the global economic system as a whole. The total disregard for people and the environment that Shell and its sister oil companies flaunt in Nigeria was also on display in Bhopal, India. There faulty maintenance and safety procedures led to an explosion in a fertilizer plant that has killed tens of thousands. The consequences are continuing to sicken and kill 26 years later. In June 2010, the courts finally got around to convicting two local managers for negligence, while the American leadership of the plant's owner, Union Carbide (since then gobbled up by Dow Chemical) has never been seriously bothered. To this day there has been no thorough clean-up and no adequate health care for those still suffering from the effects of the chemicals spread by the explosion.

The fact is that Shell and other companies can do almost anything they want in places like Nigeria. All these multinationals have to do is threaten to freeze their investments and the government of the day usually must bend to their will, as recently happened with Nigeria's new civilian president. Even in countries where the oil has been nationalized, the governments are bound by the same dictate: profit must be maximized. Ecuador and Venezuela—where the governments claim to be using natural resources and partnering with international Big Oil for the good of the people—are being poisoned by the same lethal combination of oil and the capitalist world market. They figure alongside Nigeria, Angola, Chad, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda and Sudan on the list of the countries most ravaged by oil spills and contamination.

This is not only because imperialist capital always seeks to ally with local reactionaries and their military, but even more because the very workings of the international capitalist market have made them so economically dependent. This dependency can only be broken through a radical reconfiguration of society to achieve a self-reliant economy as part of a worldwide struggle to emancipate all of humanity from the dictates of capital and the politics of imperialism.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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