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Offshore oil and gas exploitation is accident-prone. Yet the response mechanisms of the oil companies as well as the government's regulatory agencies remain dismal in Nigeria.

Since the demise of Biafra after the civil war in Nigeria, efforts have been made to obliterate the bane from the map and the preferred name of that part of the Atlantic Ocean is the Gulf of Guinea. However, another war has been raging here and continues unabated.

It is an ecological war. International oil companies are the protagonists.

On 20 December 2011, a massive oil spill occurred at Shell's Bonga Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) platform. But for the vigilance of fishermen in the area the spill may have gone unreported and the ultimate impact on the coastal shores would have been classed as being of mysterious origins. Satellite images helped watchers gauge the size of the spill which Shell had pegged at 40,000 barrels. While fishermen and locals insisted that the Bonga spill indeed hit Delta, Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom states' coastal communities, Shell and the government's sectoral watchdog agencies either contradicted the people or kept mum. The Nigerian maritime agency, Nimasa, was the sole government agency that affirmed that the spill impacted a wide swath of coastal areas.

Shell's Bonga FSPO sits about 100 kilometres offshore. The company blamed the crude oil that reached coastal areas on other unnamed and perhaps unknown sources. They offered to clean the spillage, nevertheless. Has this act of 'charity' been effected by Shell? Simmering tensions in the area over the impact of the spill does not suggest that this is the case.

Almost a month after the Shell spill, an explosion occurred on a gas well drilling rig at Chevron's Apoi North field on 16 January 2012. That explosion killed two workers. Chevron, like Shell, offered initial information and updates on the incident, assuring that steps were being taken to contain and mitigate the disaster. Like Shell, also this clearly was a half-hearted public relations gesture and tapered out even while the inferno raged.

Located a mere 10 kilometres off the Bayelsa Coast, and in fairly shallow waters, the glow and roars of hell competed with the numerous gas flares onshore. The impact on the Koluama 1 and 2 communities, Ikebiri 1, 2 and 3 communities among others, cannot be dismissed or denied. The evidence floated and still floats on the waters. Dead fish, including dolphins, and at least a whale, indicate that what has occurred was not a minor incident but a catastrophe.

Must we continue to have the negative impacts from Chevron's operation in our environment, without corresponding benefits?

As Chief Christian Munghanbofa-Akpele, chairman of the Council of Chiefs, Koluama 1, told Environmental Rights Action monitors, this accident has raised serious concerns. He said: 'We suffered a similar thing in 1980 when there was another major oil spill from Funiwa 5; just about 300 metres from the site that is on fire now; the Apoi North.' He asked: 'Must we continue to have the negative impacts from Chevron's operation in our environment, without corresponding benefits? 'One full month went by before Chevron started drilling a relief well in order to plug the damaged one. Soon after they commenced drilling, the raging inferno ceased. Community people reported that they could not see the usual 'orange glow' of the fire from the night of 2 March. The fact that the fire went off ought to be a cause for celebration. Yes. But no, not by the way this happened and the surrounding uncertainties.

Chevron does not know and cannot explain why and how the fire got extinguished. They hazard a guess that rocks may have fallen into the damaged well and plugged it. They dangers associated with this murky state of affairs is that since the fire has not been stopped in a controlled and efficient way, we cannot be sure there is no further leakage or that there would be no further eruption or explosion. While Chevron claims that there is no further leakage of gas, community monitors report that there are bubbles on the waters and noxious odour from the area.

What are the lessons that we can learn from these incidents? Many. First of all we learn that offshore oil and gas activities are accident prone. A catalogue of these has been logged from around the world. We learn also that even in shallow waters the oil companies lack the readiness and capacity to handle these accidents expeditiously and effectively. The response mechanisms by the oil companies as well as government's regulatory agencies are dismal and the government agencies appear to be tied to the apron-strings of the companies and lack independent capacity to act. This replicates around the world because of the revolving chair relationship between the two.

We learn also that there is an embarrassing lack of seriousness on the part of our public officials. The minister of petroleum resources visited the Chevron accident scene and impacted communities one full month after the explosion. President Goodluck Jonathan went even later.

The neglect of communities is legendary. When the Chevron fire affected the communities, a protest of Koluama community women at the company's offices in Warri, Delta State, only resulted in the sending of token relief material to some of the communities.

Meanwhile, fundamental issues of environmental remediation and restoration are not on the cards. With regard to the Bonga spill, one journalist said 40,000 barrels of crude oil in the ocean is comparable to a drop of spit in a bucket of water. This sort of thinking that allows criminal exploitation and environmental despoliations to goes unchallenged.


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* Nnimmo Bassey is an activist, poet/writer and architect. His is Executive Director of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth in Nigeria and Chair of Friends of the Earth International. He also coordinates Oilwatch International. His book, ‘To Cook a Continent’ (Pambazuka Press, 2012) deals with destructive extractive activities and the climate crisis in Africa.

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