Crude oil from a blowout has been pouring into creeks in the Niger Delta since Nov. 5, with the well’s owner, Nigerian energy firm Aiteo, unable to contain the spill and specialists called in to help.
The blowout, at a non-producing well in the Santa Barbara field in Bayelsa state, has caused extensive pollution of rivers and farmland in the Nembe local government area, according to the state governor, Douye Diri. According to the News Agency of Nigeria, he said Aiteo should not think that “this criminal neglect of its facilities and disregard for human life and the environment, as demonstrated by its conduct, will not be accounted for.”
In a statement released Nov. 22, the company blamed the incident on sabotage. “Aiteo remains committed to ascertaining, immediately the well head is secure, the immediate and remote causes of the leak which will be driven by a [joint investigative visit] that will follow,” it said.
The oil industry in Nigeria attributes many oil spills to sabotage by people trying to steal crude. Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), which relies almost entirely on the industry itself for access to on- and offshore oil facilities, reports that around 75% of spills are caused by sabotage and theft.
The joint team initially despatched to the Nembe spill was unable to determine the cause of the spill, as the wellhead could not be accessed “due to hydrocarbon fumes that saturated the atmosphere in the area.” A video of the spill site, captured Nov. 29, showed a high-pressure stream of brownish liquid spraying through the creeks from a wellhead as technicians worked on the site.
The scale of the spill has overwhelmed local disaster response capabilities, and U.S.-headquartered oil-well control specialist Halliburton Boots and Coots has been drafted in to “kill the well,” a process that involves injecting cement into the well to plug it.
“Work is still ongoing at the site to stop the spill,” NOSDRA director-general Idris Musa told Mongabay last week, but all activities around the well were temporarily suspended Nov. 29 to allow the well-kill operation to proceed.
Decades of destruction
The Niger Delta is rich in biological diversity and natural resources. Its creeks, swamps and mangrove forests are home to fishing and farming communities as well as threatened species including manatees (Trichechus senegalensis), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti), and the Niger Delta red colobus (Piliocolobus epieni).
But decades of oil production have made the region one of the most polluted places on Earth. NOSDRA recorded 639 oil spills in just the past two years, resulting in 28,003 barrels spewed into the environment, according to the agency’s data.
Bayelsa is where oil was first discovered in Nigeria, in 1956. In the decades since, oil spills from wells and pipelines have contaminated farmland and water bodies, and exposed residents to toxic chemicals. Flaring of gas has led to acid rain falling on the area, while contributing to making Nigeria the 17th largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
This environmental destruction has been caused by oil majors including Shell, Chevron and Eni. The Nembe well was bought from Shell by Lagos-based Aiteo in 2015.
“It is extremely disturbing because the trend we are seeing now is that international oil companies know that their equipment are dilapidated, and to avoid responsibility, they move offshore and sell to gullible local companies who think they can make profit and are not ready or equipped to [deal with] this kind of emergencies,” said Nnimmo Bassey, an environmentalist and founder of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), a prominent green NGO in Nigeria.
Consequences — just not for oil companies
The impact of the Nembe spill on local communities and the environment is still to be determined, but Samuel Oburo, an environmental activist affiliated with Friends of the Earth, who lives about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Nembe, says villagers in the area have been badly impacted.
“I can tell you that the people there face great danger. They have started crying out. They have started experiencing strange illnesses due to the unfriendly atmosphere this spill has exposed the community to,” he told Mongabay over the phone.
But getting oil firms to clean up or pay for environmental crimes in Nigeria is difficult. Legal claims for compensation can take years, even decades, and companies are expected to pay relatively little in fines when they err.
NOSDRA’S regulations say oil companies have 24 hours to respond to the discovery of a spill. A joint visit by government agencies, company officials and community representatives should take place as soon as possible. But a 2018 study by Amnesty International found frequent delays, with some spills continuing for months after they were reported.
Shell, one of the largest operators in the country, visited spill sites within 24 hours on just 26% of occasions, Amnesty said. The slowest response time recorded was when Eni took 430 days to respond to a spill in Bayelsa state. “These delays point to serious negligence. Shell and Eni are wealthy, powerful multinationals: why can’t they act faster? Why can’t they do more?,” the report said.
But the penalties for noncompliance are negligible: 1 million naira ($2,400) for an initial default, and an additional 500,000 naira for every day after that.
“How much is N500,000 to an oil company?” NOSDRA’s Idris Musa said. An amendment increasing the fines is in progress.
Speaking to the ongoing spill at Nembe, HOMEF’s Bassey said that considering the apparent scale and duration of the latest spill, the safest option for residents of the area is to be relocated. “This area does not have pipe-borne water, and when the river is covered with crude oil, it means they have to depend on imported water,” he said. “Some may drink from that river because these areas are permanently polluted and they have no option. Children will swim in that river and people will drink from that river.”
“Crude oil contains very toxic heavy metals like lead; you know, lead affects a lot things concerning people, the nervous system, causes cancer. You have mercury in oil, you have cadmium, you have arsenic and benzene and many others,” he told Mongabay.
“So anybody eating fish from that river is in trouble already. So the relief that they are giving, I believe they should actually evacuate people from that territory at this time.”
Oburo agreed: “So long as the spill continues, there is nothing that can be done to restore the air quality. The only solution is to evacuate those people from there because their lives are precious.”
Bayelsa government spokesperson Dan Alabrah said the state is providing relief materials to communities, but had no plans to relocate them.