Nembe Oil spill: Oil firms should do better

Spillage from oil facilities is not uncommon in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria; particularly in oil-producing states like Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, Akwa-Ibom, where oil pipelines run beneath the earth’s surface and river bodies like convoluted wires on a power line.

Since oil production activities began in 1958, spillage incident has become a regular occurrence, sometimes due to equipment failure or sabotage by criminal elements.

In 1970, a major oil spill occurred in Ogoniland in the then eastern region, which led to an expansive spill and contamination of farmlands and rivers.

The incident ultimately led to the killing of Ken Saro Wiwa, an environmental rights activist and writer and 8 other Ogoni men in the mid-1990s by the Sani Abacha regime for pressing for the environmental rights and survival of the Ogoni people whose land was contaminated by the oil spill.

The issue also consequently led to a  £26m fine for Shell in a Nigerian court  30years later, Vanguard newspaper reports.

According to the Nigerian government, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and the year 2000.

Decades later, the same issues persist with no improved methods or ways of oil spill containment and remediation by the oil firms.

Sadly, the oil spill in OML 29, well 1, Santa Barbara River in Nembe local government area of Bayelsa state, which occurred on 1st November 2021 has been raging for over three weeks unmitigated.

Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production Company, an indigenous firm and operator of the well, bought its operating license from the Royal Dutch Shell Plc for a sum of $2.5 billion as part of a major divestment move in 2015 by Shell.

The oil spillage which has been widely reported has not been contained and the leaking wellhead (non-producing) still gushes out oil in a fountain-like manner into the surrounding environment.

Vanguard newspaper reports that over 40 surrounding communities have been impacted by the spill, while the escaping crude is gradually spreading to Kula in Rivers state.

However, Aiteo has drawn criticisms from many quarters including the Bayelsa state government, regarding its response to the spill.

Governor Douye Diri, through the Commissioner for Information, Orientation, and Strategy, Ayibaina Duba, stated that he was disappointed that Aiteo had neglected to take any concrete steps since the leak.

Diri wondered why Aiteo, an indigenous oil company, would allow the massive spill to continue, “leading to extensive pollution of the rivers, waterways, and farmlands in the Nembe Local Government Area, even when the company’s management is aware of the situation.”

Similarly, Alagoa Morris, Environmental Rights Activists said the oil firm should have been more proactive in their response to the spill.

“No matter the cause of incident the facility owner ought to have stopped it and initiated steps to contain and clean up promptly,” Morris said.

Meanwhile, Aiteo on Sunday, 21st, November in an official statement through its spokesman, Mathew Ndianabasi, said it is making efforts of remediation by seeking help assistance through both local and international collaboration

Aiteo which alleged that the spill could be caused by vandals, sent its officials to visit the impacted communities and donated four truckloads of food items, relief materials medical supplies, and a sum of 5 million cash as compensation to the communities.

But the question is: will that be enough? Will it cushion the disrupted economic life of the locals especially in this period of difficult socio-economic conditions? 

Will it stop the leaking well? Will that stop the catastrophic effect the spill has on the environment, especially on the river and its ecosystem? The right answers to these questions are not far-fetched. It is a capital NO.

It defies logical reason and the height of callousness to allow the spill of that volume to rage on this long without any concrete efforts to halt it. Even Aiteo called the spill a “high volume order spill.”

Oil spills, when they occur, must be contained forthwith to protect the environment from resultant degradation and other deleterious effects.

Again, it is rather disappointing that similar spillage occurred in October 2019 at the same OML 29, well 1, Santa Barbara River in Nembe local government.

A report by Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), stated that the spill two years ago lasted for about two months without containment.

One would have thought by now that the oil firm would have been more prepared and ready to tackle incidents of an oil spill but that seems not to be the case.

The leaders, political class, and those who represent the people have a big role to play in all of this as well. They must have to do better in holding the multinational oil firms to account in the event of spills.

It is not enough to stay in their comfort zones to condemn and issue press statements.

Like in the United States for example, in 2010 when the Mancondo wellhead blew out, leading to a gigantic oil spill and fire outbreak in the Gulf of Mexico, the President of the United States at the time, Barrack Obama did not only pay multiple visits to the site of the incident but made sure the operators pay an accumulated amount of almost $100 million for containment, clean up and compensation.

It was reported that President Muhammadu Buhari, has ordered Aiteo to stop operations momentarily in the affected site.

The visitation of the site by some high-ranking government officials, including the minister of state for petroleum resources, Chief Timipre Sylva, is a step in the right direction.

The political class though late took important steps. What remains to be seen is the commencement of proper clean-up and remediation. 

Oil firms can do better in the containment of oil spills because the lives and livelihood of oil-bearing communities in the deltaic region matter a lot.

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