The Oil Spills You Never Heard Of

While the news about British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizon platform blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is on a 24-hour news feed, it took a long boat ride and some serious slogging by John Vidal of The Observer (UK) to uncover a bigger and far deadlier oil spill near the village of Otuegwe in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

“We lost our nets, huts and fishing pots. This is where we fished and farmed. We have lost our forest,” Otuegwe’s leader, Chief Promise, told Vidal.

The culprits in Nigeria are Shell and Exxon Mobil, whose 40-year old pipelines break with distressing regularity, pouring oil into the locals’ fishing grounds and drinking water. The Delta supports 606 oil fields that supply close to 40 percent of U.S. oil imports.

This past May, an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured in the state of Akwa Ibon, dumping more than a million gallons into the Delta before it was patched. According to Ben Ikari, a writer and member of the local Ogoni people, “This kind of thing happens all the time in the Delta…the oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care, and people must live with the pollution daily. The situation is worse than it was 30 years ago.”

Just how bad things are is not clear, because the oil companies and the Nigerian government will not make the figures public. But independent investigators estimate that over the past four decades the amount of oil released into the Delta adds up to 50 Exxon Valdez spills, or 550 million gallons. According to the most recent government figures, up to June 3, Deepwater Horizon had pumped between 24 to 51 million gallons into the Gulf.

Nigerian government figures show there have been more than 9000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are currently 2,000 official spill sites. The oil companies claim the majority of them are caused by local rebels blowing up pipelines or siphoning off the oil, and that spills are quickly dealt with.

However, the locals say most of the spills are caused by the aging infrastructure, and they and environmental groups charge that the companies do virtually nothing to clean them up. And when local people do challenge the oil giants, they say they get run off by oil company security guards.

The biggest oil disaster in the world, however, is not in Africa or the Gulf of Mexico, but in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle, where Texaco—now owned by Chevron—pumped 18.5 billion gallons of “produced water” into an area of more than 2,000 square miles. “Produced water” is heavily laden with salts, crude oil, and benzene, a carcinogenic chemical,.

According to the Amazon Defense Coalition, Chevron dumped the toxic waste directly into rivers and streams, in spite of recommendations by American Petroleum Institute that such waste be injected deep into the earth. “The BP tragedy was an accident; Chevron’s discharge in Ecuador was deliberate,” said the Coalition in a press release.

Experts estimate that 345 million gallons of oil have been discharged into the rainforest, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. The oil and wastewater, along with “black rains” produced by the uncontrolled burning of gas, has created a nightmare for the local indigenous groups—the Secoya, Cofan, Siona, Huarani, and Kichwa.

Ecuador and the five tribes are currently suing Chevron for $27 billion, but the oil company claims it bears no responsibility for Texaco’s practices and says it will not pay a nickel if it is assessed for any of the damage.

As oil resources decrease, the pressure will be on to seek new resources in more marginal territory, including the deep ocean, tropical rain forests, and sensitive artic and tundra zones. Shell is chomping at the bit to start drilling in the Artic Ocean.

Judith Kimerling, who wrote “Amazon Crude” about the oil industry in Ecuador, toldThe Observer, “Spills, leaks and deliberate discharges are happening in oilfields all over the world and very few people seem to care.”

Except, of course, the people who live in the middle of them.