Gulf spill sheds light on worldwide oil problems, disasters

A friend pointed me to this New York Times article about how prevalent oil spills are in Nigeria, yet how they get little to no media attention — but when it happens in the U.S., it’s making headlines around the world:

Experts estimate that some 13 million barrels of oil have been spilt in the Niger Delta since oil exploration began in 1958. This is the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every year for 50 years.

This is baffling. And worse yet, according to The Guardian (very insightful article), the oil spills are so frequent that oil companies and governments don’t take responseiveness as seriously:

The sense of outrage is widespread. “There are more than 300 spills, major and minor, a year,” said Bassey. “It happens all the year round. The whole environment is devastated. The latest revelations highlight the massive difference in the response to oil spills. In Nigeria, both companies and government have come to treat an extraordinary level of oil spills as the norm.”

And unfortunately, Shell and the Nigerian government are in a position where they can delay responsiveness and the environment can be horribly damaged without the world as a whole paying any attention. BP is under global pressure because it happened to own an oil rig that exploded within the United States — a global power that has the clout to demand and receive immediate action.

Shell doesn’t have the same problem. Although Nigeria is the eighth largest country in the world (the U.S. is third-largest) and has the 32nd highest GDP in the world (out of 227 countries) — which on paper makes for a seemingly powerful and influential nation — it’s economy is extremely dependent on the oil industry, according to the CIA World Factbook:

Oil-rich Nigeria, long hobbled by political instability, corruption, inadequate infrastructure, and poor macroeconomic management, has undertaken several reforms over the past decade. Nigeria’s former military rulers failed to diversify the economy away from its overdependence on the capital-intensive oil sector, which provides 95% of foreign exchange earnings and about 80% of budgetary revenues.

This overdependence makes it easier for Shell and other oil companies to exploit the country, as both oil companies and the government keep official oil spill data a secret, likely because the government cannot afford to lose the business. Another problem, as outlined in the Guardian article, is that Nigeria doesn’t have the same voice and influence as the United States:

“This has gone on for 50 years in Nigeria. People depend completely on the environment for their drinking water and farming and fishing. They are amazed that the president of the US can be making speeches daily, because in Nigeria people there would not hear a whimper,” he said.

U.S. dependence on oil creates an unhealthy life for people elsewhere. Although some might argue that using less oil will crush a country like Nigeria’s economy, the oil industry dependence is already crushing their environment and their population. And, as the Times explains, “experts predict that as oil companies turn increasingly to the deep ocean and other difficult environments to get oil, more leaks are likely.”

Another interesting aspect of this story, however, is how true it is that atrocities can exist without global knowledge but, when they happen on U.S. soil, they actually get media attention. At a panel discussion about religion at OU last year, a man from India said that he found it interesting that the U.S. was so scared of having another terrorist attack after 9/11 — he said in India, terrorist attacks are a daily occurrence.

The U.S. is not used to bad things like this oil spill happening to it — it’s a powerful force with seemingly limitless resources, and we can be blinded by that and forget that other countries don’t have the same luxuries. Not only does an event like this provide a platform for Nigeria’s serious oil spill problems to be spotlighted, but it highlights that (1) our dependence has serious effects globally on other nations and people, and (2) we cannot ignore when we discover an isolated event is actually a recurring and common event elsewhere.

If we are going to hold BP to a high standard and ridicule it for polluting our waters, we should hold all oil companies to the same standard for waters around the globe.

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