Friday

1st Mar 2024

Investigation

Oil-spill devastation in Nigeria — and how the EU can fix it

  • Based on data from the Nigerian Oil Spill Detector and Response Agency, in 2022 alone, TotalEnergies was responsible for four recorded incidents, leading to 28 barrels of spilled crude oil (Photo: European Community, 2006)
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"The water we drink, when we first fetch it in the morning, we usually see oil and we have to throw it away," lamented Onyechere Orji, the community chief of Egita, a village in Rivers State, southern Nigeria, claiming that the oil pollution in his well is caused by TotalEnergies' oil spills.

He believes that the problems started as soon as the French multinational company first arrived in the community in 2012.

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  • Oily water, from a spill in Nigeria (Photo: Kevin Woke)

Rivers States is a province of the Niger Delta, an area with huge reserves of crude oil that is easy to reach and has low sulphur content. This region has been experiencing constant oil spills since the 1950s, when oil was first discovered there.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), more than 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001, with a loss of approximately three million barrels of oil. The numbers could be even higher, as many incidents went under-reported.

Based on data from the Nigerian Oil Spill Detector and Response Agency (NOSDRA), the Nigerian governmental agency monitoring oil spills, in 2022 alone, TotalEnergies was responsible for four recorded incidents, leading to 28 barrels of spilled crude oil.

Onyeala Okwudu, a retired police officer from the village of Nvakohia, claimed that the oil spills often occur due to faulty project execution. He alleged that contractors awarded the pipeline construction projects often "will write it off that the job has been executed when it has not been completed."

According to Okwudu, this eventually leads to pipeline failures.

The consequences of these endless oil spills are felt at both a human level, with local communities losing their livelihoods and facing substantial health issues, as well as the environmental level, through the destruction of ecosystems and water contaminations. Despite this, few initiatives have been launched to clean-up the oil spills and restore the affected territories as well as to compensate the local communities for the losses incurred.

Courts in European countries, where some of these major companies are based, have started forcing them to take accountability for their actions.

At the end of 2022, a court in the Netherlands ordered Shell, the Dutch oil giant, to pay €15m to four farmer communities in the Niger Delta, which had been affected by four major spills between 2004 and 2007.

The European Union is also in the process of taking some measures that could increase its ability to intervene in cases of oil spills, provoked by the European companies. One of the key actions will be revising the directive on environmental crime to address impunity and improve access to justice on the European territory for affected communities around the world.

Affected communities: pollution-driven deprivation

TotalEnergies is hosted in five villages in Rumuekpe as well as in three Nvakohia communities and in Egita. These are mostly agrarian and fishermen communities. The TotalEnergies' oil spills have greatly depleted the locals' livelihoods and the environment.

"Each morning, I see at least seven fish dead from pollution," says Abraham Npkor, a fish farmer from Rumuekpe in Rivers State, southern Nigeria. He claims that the oil pollution has led to a substantial drop in the number of fish he can sell; even those he can still bring to the market now "have an odour."

Local fishermen have also been impacted by TotalEnergies' pollution of their rivers, including the Sombreiro river. The Sombreiro river system is one of the key ones in the Niger delta basin, providing breeding grounds for a wide variety of fish species.

The local community development chairman said that the oil spills have depleted the river's fish population. Despite the company's promises that preserving the environment would be a "key priority" when constructing a river crossing for the Sombreiro river through an underground pipe installation method, since 2019, locals from the Omoviri village in Rumuekpe have started noticing oil spills from the Sombreiro river passing through their community.

The Sombreiro river is not only used for fishing, but drinking, bathing and washing clothes. The pollution has forced the locals to seek out other water sources in the bush. Drinking contaminated water represents a major health hazard for the local population. The community has been pleading, to no avail thus far, with the government for an alternative water source and for alleviating the environmental pollution.

In 2021, the Rumuekpe community leaders also claimed that 600 locals have died due to oil pollution. For these losses, they asked the multinational oil company for €1.6m compensation. Their requests are in accordance with the 2004 Nigerian Oil Pipelines Act, which stipulates that compensation should be provided to affected communities.

Until now, TotalEnergies has failed to heed to their demand. And all efforts to obtain a comment from the TotalEnergies office in Nigeria and headquarters for this article were left unheeded.

The Rumuekpe, Nvakohia and Egita communities are not the only ones affected. As a result of similar oil spills, other local populations in the Niger Delta, such as the Ogoni ones, have been living with chronic oil pollution, exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons in outdoor air and drinking water as well as through dermal contact from contamination sources.

When it comes to the environment, soil and water pollution are extensive, while mangrove ecosystems are being depleted. At the same time, in the case of oil spills on land, fires often break out, destroying the vegetation and creating a crust over the land.

Despite the Niger Delta's resource abundance, its people have not seen any benefits. Faced with the loss of their livelihoods and a lack of alternative economic opportunities, thousands of people in the Niger Delta are turning to illegal bunkering, which refers to acts of oil thefts, including smuggling of oil and unauthorised loading of ships.

Local human rights organisations estimate that this illegal activity has doubled since 2015. This is contributing to new oil spills, while expanding the costs of future clean-ups. Illegal bunkering is leading to numerous deaths.

Most recently, in early March 2023, an explosion led to the death of 12 people, who were scooping fuel, when the site caught fire and burned them to death.

The EU: slowly expanding its role

With an expanding interest in climate-related issues since the adoption of the European Green Deal in 2020, the EU is in the process of taking some measures that could increase its ability to intervene in cases of oil spills.

One key measure is the revision of the EU Directive on Environmental Crime. This new directive, which would replace an older 2008 version, would improve "how the EU defines criminal offences related to pollution, waste and threatening biodiversity and other natural resources." By doing so, it would address key environmental offences and contribute to strengthening the environmental rule of law.

The 2008 version was criticised, by the EU commission itself, for not having "much effect in practice. The number of environmental crime cases successfully investigated and sentenced has remained at a very low level. Sanction levels imposed were often too low to be dissuasive and cross-border cooperation was insufficient."

The 2008 version of the directive also did not allow to initiate extraterritorial criminal proceedings for environmental crimes that have taken place outside the territory of a member state.

Marie Toussaint, a Green MEP, is striving to help the law evolve, "by allowing, for example, the prosecution of subsidiaries that have committed damage on behalf of a company based on the territory of the state in question to avoid this externalisation of environmental damage."

This could improve access to justice on the European territory for communities affected by oil spills in Nigeria.

The need for an ameliorated directive becomes particularly poignant when considering the fact that, according to Interpol, environmental crime has become the fourth-largest criminal sector in the world in only a few decades, growing two to three times faster than the global economy.

Toussaint emphasised that "the looting and destruction of nature is now as lucrative a business as drug trafficking. Worldwide, environmental crime is now worth between $110bn and $280bn [€100bn-€255bn] a year."

'Ecocide'

The MEP is currently pushing for the inclusion of the term "ecocide" in the directive. This term, first coined in the 1970s, refers to the destructions of the natural environment that are widespread, long-term and severe. She mentions that the recognition of the concept, "with adequate sanctions, would help impunity for environmental crimes, such as oil spills" and it could ensure "real criminal liability for those who commit those crimes."

Toussaint is also working to get "ecocide" recognised within the International Criminal Court's Rome statute, helping it to be sanctioned wherever it might be committed.

While the statute already has an article on war crime "explicitly devoted to environmental protection, this is particularly complicated to use and has never been used by the ICC prosecutor's office," explained the MEP. Recognising "ecocide" would place it as an international crime on the level of genocide.

For cases, such as the oil spills in Nigeria, the ICC recognition of the term ecocide could prove to have substantial consequences, as it will allow for private individuals, such as CEOs, corporate executives and members of states, to be held accountable for mass environmental damage.

This could ultimately act as a deterrent for these high-profile individuals to engage in ecocide.

These and other measures, such as the upcoming revision of the Environmental Liability Directive, whose aim is to "prevent and remedy damaged natural resources and their services to the condition that would have existed if no damage had occurred," could increase the ability of the European Union and key international institutions to take an active role in punishing such crimes.

What does this mean for the Niger Delta?

In the case of Nigerian oil spills, these EU and ICC measures could enable the affected communities to more easily hold companies such as TotalEnergies and Shell accountable for their actions.

Having to face more serious consequences at the European and international levels could also put pressure on these companies to improve their pipeline construction and maintenance, thus preventing future spills. The issue of prevention, however, must become a standalone issue in and of itself when tackled through initiatives like the Directive on Environmental Crimes.

While these future solutions sound promising, the most pressing needs for the Rumuekpe and other Niger Delta communities remains for TotalEnergies to clean their oil spills and compensate them for their human and environmental losses. The Niger Delta remains, for now, far from a sustainable oil-spill free future.

Author bio

Raluca Besliu is a Romanian freelance journalist in Brussels, focussing on West Africa, the environment, human rights, and eastern Europe.

Additional information by Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi and Kevin Woke. The investigation was supported by Journalismfund.eu.

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