Oil Spills Around the World: An Exxon Valdez Every Year

Oil Spills Around the World: An Exxon Valdez Every Year

Earlier this month, thanks to the press surrounding the Gulf oil spill, newspapers and radio stations began running stories that touched on the catastrophic oil spills happening elsewhere in the world. Turns out, they’re happening all the time.

That’s not at all to say that the Gulf spill isn’t a disaster. It’s one of, if not the, worst environmental disasters ever to happen in this country. The point is that oil companies are getting away with similar disasters all over the world, but in places where there isn’t quite as much environmental regulation or public scrutiny of their operations.

In Nigeria, for example, every year since 1969, oil operations in the Niger Delta have spilled as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez. Let that sink in for a minute … an Exxon Valdez spill every year. There are 2,000 ongoing spills in the country. The AP reported earlier this month that last year Royal Dutch Shell alone spilled a record 14,000 tons of crude oil in the Niger Delta. That’s over 4 million gallons, for those of you who don’t think of oil in tons. The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons in Alaska in 1989. The Niger Delta is the largest wetland in Africa, spanning 20,000 square miles and inhabited by some 150 species, all now endangered thanks to oil spills.

This morning the Yes Men pulled one of their classic stunts, sending around a press release from Shell declaring that it was going to stop deepwater drilling in the Niger Delta and begin remediating the wetlands there. The release was preceded by a staged press conference a few days ago in which a Yes Man posing as a Shell corporate responsibility flak apologized on behalf of the company for the havoc it has wreaked on the people and environment of Nigeria.

It was a gag, but also a good reminder that while the world is tuned into the Gulf, oil companies are getting away with ongoing spills in other countries around the world. According to Lisa Margonelli, journalist and author of Oil on the Brain: Adventures from Pump to Pipeline, it’s not just Nigeria. “We drill in places like Chad, which had no environmental laws whatsoever, and the United States and the World Bank and Exxon kinda made this deal and went in and created environmental laws on the fly,” she said on a recent radio show. “The problem is that it’s fine to have a moratorium on drilling here, but we need to make sure we’re not going abroad to get the oil. Because we still use oil. So we’re now going to these countries that are a little dicey because the big oilfields are basically gone, so we’re going to places that are riskier geologically, riskier politically, riskier in general, financially, and they tend to be places with fewer regulations.”

Stephen Kretzman, director of nonprofit Oil Change International, regularly writes about such things on his The Price of Oil blog, and notes that the industry routinely spills large amounts, especially in countries like Nigeria. The oil companies are also in the habit of generally ripping off the locals when they come to town, which goes a long way toward explaining why some of Shell’s spills in Nigeria can be pinned on local militants and thieves who have targeted the company’s oil lines. In a recent Price of Oil post, blogger Andy Rowell points to shady oil-drilling contracts currently being made in the Congo.

The problem, as Margonelli points out, is that while the public can be outraged all it wants at the Gulf spill and the various environmental disasters created by oil companies around the world, unless the demand for oil goes down, oil companies will continue to do whatever they can to supply it.

Amy Westervelt is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, Calif. She writes about tech, health, and the environment for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. In 200 ...read more

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