Oil Extraction in the Niger Delta: Shell’s Present-Day Negligence Rooted in Colonial Past

Image by George Osodi/Getty Images

By Jessica Harris

In 2010 the Gulf of Mexico was devasted by the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. In the largest spill in US history, the broken well pumped 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. After a six-year legal battle, BP paid $20.8 billion in damages — the largest environmental settlement in US history. Spills like this captivate our attention. They are followed by media coverage, massive cleanup projects, stricter policies and regulations, legal action, and monetary compensation.

Imagine a place where oil spills like this are frequent. A place where within fifteen years alone, one company is responsible for approximately 2,976 spills, which is equivalent to 2.1 million barrels of oil. Imagine a place where mangroves are coated in oil and fish populations no longer inhabit their native waters. Imagine shorter life expectancies riddled with higher rates of cancer and respiratory illness, fertile lands destroyed, and natural gas is burned rather than processed to save money.

No need to imagine it. This place exists, and chances are you’ve never heard of it.

 The Niger Delta, a wetland which lines the Gulf of Guinea in Nigeria, has been home to numerous multinational oil extractors for more than half a century. In 2011, the United Nations Environment Program evaluated the effects of oil specifically in Ogoniland, an ethnic region in the delta. They found the delta’s ecosystem and its inhabitants have suffered catastrophically from oil spills. Decimated fish populations and oil slicked farmland have cut off means of agriculture and subsistence for native people. In 2013, approximately 14,000 times the standard of petroleum hydrocarbons and more than 900 times the standard of a known carcinogen, Benzene, were found in local drinking water.

Sustained exposure to oil and carcinogens in the drinking water and particulate matter in the air have been tied to reduced lifespans as short as 45 years. One study estimates oil spills that occur less than ten kilometers from pregnant mothers increase neonatal mortality by about 38.3 deaths per 1,000 live births. In 2012 alone the study estimated 16,000 babies died within one month of birth as a direct result of oil pollution exposure, out of over 5 million live births.

Royal Dutch Shell, the oil company responsible for a majority of the environmental damage, began extractive operations in 1958, pumping $600 billion worth of resources from Ogoniland until 1993. They later withdrew from the territory to continue operations elsewhere under their Nigerian subsidiary. In his 2011 book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon chronicles the human and environmental impacts of Shell’s presence in the region.

Nixon describes the horrific effects of Shell’s extractive operations and use of natural gas flaring, writing that rather than processing the byproduct of oil extraction, the gas is burned off to lower production costs. At the height of flaring, it is estimated the fires were expelling 12 million tons of methane and 35 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. This flaring event is considered  the largest known contributor to accelerated greenhouse gas emissions and subsequently, climate change.

In 1970 following a major spill of crude oil onto farmland near Ebubu, Shell burned the oil rather than properly cleaning it up, leaving a hardened crust 15 feet deep. Not only has the company been negligent in cleaning up spills, but 40% of all of Shell’s global spills have occurred in Nigeria alone. Unlike lucrative rents in the global North (where the cost of production is much higher than the actual cost of the crude oil to meet strict regulations and health and safety standards) there is no such compensation in Nigeria. Production costs are cut to yield higher profits, intentionally benefitting Shell at the expense of Nigerians.  

Today, Shell still manages 50 oil fields, five gas plants and more than 3,000 miles of pipelines in the Niger Delta. In 2008, more than three-quarters of these pipelines were found to be 10 to 15 years overdue for replacements. Despite decades of negligence, the company claims “Sabotage, crude-oil theft and illegal refining” are to blame. Yet in 1994 their head of environmental studies resigned claiming he could not defend the company’s behavior “without losing his personal integrity”.  

Given their blatant negligence, why does Shell continue to spill and extract? Why doesn’t their human and environmental abuse grab the news cycle like Deepwater horizon or Exxon Valdez? 

Environmental racism and the extractive economic model colonialism left behind still greatly influence how modern corporations approach business in the global South. Little attention is given to the disproportionately high number of spills in poorer countries. This global apathy towards the devastation of the Niger Delta implies these consequences are expected, worth the price of feeding our global addiction to oil, and not important enough to hold the same headlines Deepwater horizon occupied.  

The colonization of Nigeria in 1901 stifled any opportunities for growth outside of resource extraction. It embedded a reliance on an extractive economic model (that which is dependent on a non-reciprocal extracting of resources and labor without compensation or care for the environmental destruction that follows). This model is enforced by predatory capitalists and a hierarchical relationship with resource-rich countries. After independence in 1960, Europeans left a power vacuum filled by leaders with nowhere to turn but a lucrative oil industry which accounts for 95% of the country’s total export earnings. Dependent on this model, low rent seeking behaviors are encouraged, incentivizing corruption. Take for example the “penalty” for gas flaring equivalent to N10.00 (£0.0215) for every cubic foot of gas flared. This small amount indicates perhaps there are no real intentions to end gas flaring, especially since it accounts for nearly 85% of Nigeria’s gas industry.   

Shell claims to be committed to cleaning up spill damage. However, in 2020, ten years after the corporation was urged to clean up all their oil slicken sites, work has only begun on 11% of them with no site entirely cleaned up. Shell operates in Nigeria to maximize profits, benefiting from an extractive economic model implemented in the early days of colonialism and propped up by a corrupt government and exploitive corporations. The company could increase production costs to maintain safer operations, but they choose not to. Their record of neglect and disregard for the health of the Niger delta is a clear indication that they believe “poor brown lives of the global south” simply are not worth the cost.  

While nothing will ever compensate for half a century of environmental and human suffering, there is hope that recent challenges to Shell’s negligence will set a legal precedent for future operations. In January of this year, Shell was tried in a Dutch court and ordered to pay damages to farmers in Oruma and Goi for spills in 2004 and 2005. It is small but introduces some accountability for multinational companies and their foreign operations.  

The flags and soldiers of colonialism may have left Nigeria, but a toxic legacy of exploitive extraction remains. Modern foreign corporations have followed in their footsteps, taking advantage of the economic model colonialism left for them- that which is dependent upon resources, whatever the social and environmental cost.   

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