The New York Times reminded us today that while the oil spill in the Gulf is an acute shock to Americans, oil spills have become a way of life in the Niger delta. The area has “has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless.” Much of the Niger delta is dead as a result.
Once, the Niger delta fed the entire coast. It was rich with shellfish, mollusks, and fish. Now, most of that is gone. Fisherman can no longer make a living, and children swim in oily swamps. Nearly 11 million gallons of oil a year have spilled into the delta’s wetlands; in comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil.
According to The Independent in 2006, “7,000sq km of the continent’s remaining 9,000sq km of mangrove and scientists believe some 60 per cent of West Africa’s fish stocks breed in the rivers and swamps along the coast.” Think about that, and then consider that over 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001.
It’s a gruesome lesson in the risks of unbridled oil exploration and weak government regulations. Amnesty International has a report on the Niger Delta, and they say that “Nigeria has laws and regulations that require companies to comply with internationally recognized standards of “good oil field practice”, and laws and regulations to protect the environment but these laws and regulations are poorly enforced. The government agencies responsible for enforcement are ineffective and, in some cases, compromised by conflicts of interest.” They go on to point out that oil exploration has brought little to no income to the delta region itself.
As existing oil wells age and run dry, we are going to need to drill in more and more ecologically sensitive places. The Niger delta and the Mississippi delta could just be the beginning. The world needs clean energy. As soon as humanly possible.