Big Oil Makes War on the Planet
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If you live on the Gulf Coast, welcome to the real world of oil -- and just know that you’re not alone. In the Niger Delta and the Ecuadorian Amazon, among other places, your emerging hell has been the living hell of local populations for decades.
Even as I was visiting those distant and exotic spill locales via book, article, and YouTube, you were going through your very public nightmare. Three federal appeals court judges with financial and other ties to big oil were rejecting the Obama administration’s proposed drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollution from the BP spill there was seeping into Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans. Clean-up crews were discovering that a once-over of beaches isn’t nearly enough: somehow, the oil just keeps reappearing. Endangered sea turtles and other creatures were being burnt alive in swaths of ocean ("burn fields") ignited by BP to "contain" its catastrophe. The lives and livelihoods of fishermen and oyster-shuckers were being destroyed. Disease warnings were being issued to Gulf residents and alarming toxin levels were beginning to be found in clean-up workers.
None of this would surprise inhabitants of either the Niger Delta or the Amazon rain forest. Despite the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 and the Exxon Valdez in 1989, Americans are only now starting to wake up to the fate that, for half a century, has befallen the Delta and the Amazon, both ecosystems at least as rich and varied as the Gulf of Mexico.
The Niger Delta region, which faces the Atlantic in southern Nigeria, is the world’s third largest wetland. As with shrimp and oysters in the Gulf, so its mangrove forests, described as “rain forests by the sea,” shelter all sorts of crustaceans. The Amazon rain forest, the Earth’s greatest nurturer of biodiversity, covers more than two billion square miles and provides this planet with about 20% of its oxygen. We are, in other words, talking about the despolation-by-oil not of bleak backlands, but of some of this planet’s greatest natural treasures.
Consider Goi, a village in the Niger Delta. It is located on the banks of a river whose tides used to bring in daily offerings of lobsters and fish. Goi’s fishermen would cast their nets into the water and simply let them swell with the harvest. Unfortunately, the village was located close to one of the Delta’s many pipelines. Six years ago, there was a major spill into the river; the oil caught fire and spread.
Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth, International, visited soon after. “What I saw” he reported in a recent radio interview, "was just a sea of crude, burnt out mangroves, and burnt out fishponds beside the river… All the houses close to the river were burnt... It was like a place that had been set on fire in a situation of battle, of war. The people were completely devastated.”
Nigeria’s biggest oil producer, Royal Dutch Shell, insisted that it cleaned up the village, but Bassey just laughs. “One thing about oil incidents: you cannot hide them. The evidence is there for anybody to see. This was in 2004; I’ve been there two times this year. The devastation is still virtually as fresh as it was then. You can still see the oil sheen on the river. You can see the mangroves that were burnt, they’ve not recovered. You can see the fish ponds that were destroyed. You can see the fishing nets and boats that were burnt. They’re all there. There’s no signs of any clean-up.”