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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on June 5th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

Disaster in the Amazon

By BOB HERBERT, New York Times, Op-Ed Columnist.
Published: June 4, 2010

BP’s calamitous behavior in the Gulf of Mexico is the big oil story of the moment. But for many years, indigenous people from a formerly pristine region of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador have been trying to get relief from an American company, Texaco (which later merged with Chevron), for what has been described as the largest oil-related environmental catastrophe ever.

“As horrible as the gulf spill has been, what happened in the Amazon was worse,” said Jonathan Abady, a New York lawyer who is part of the legal team that is suing Chevron on behalf of the rainforest inhabitants.

It has been a long and ugly legal fight and the outcome is uncertain. But what has happened in the rainforest is heartbreaking, although it has not gotten nearly the coverage that the BP spill has.

What’s not in dispute is that Texaco operated more than 300 oil wells for the better part of three decades in a vast swath of Ecuador’s northern Amazon region, just south of the border with Colombia. Much of that area has been horribly polluted. The lives and culture of the local inhabitants, who fished in the intricate waterways and cultivated the land as their ancestors had done for generations, have been upended in ways that have led to widespread misery.

Texaco came barreling into this delicate ancient landscape in the early 1960s with all the subtlety and grace of an invading army. And when it left in 1992, it left behind, according to the lawsuit, widespread toxic contamination that devastated the livelihoods and traditions of the local people, and took a severe toll on their physical well-being.

A brief filed by the plaintiffs said: “It deliberately dumped many billions of gallons of waste byproduct from oil drilling directly into the rivers and streams of the rainforest covering an area the size of Rhode Island. It gouged more than 900 unlined waste pits out of the jungle floor — pits which to this day leach toxic waste into soils and groundwater. It burned hundreds of millions of cubic feet of gas and waste oil into the atmosphere, poisoning the air and creating ‘black rain’ which inundated the area during tropical thunderstorms.”

The quest for oil is, by its nature, colossally destructive. And the giant oil companies, when left to their own devices, will treat even the most magnificent of nature’s wonders like a sewer. But the riches to be made are so vastly corrupting that governments refuse to impose the kinds of rigid oversight and safeguards that would mitigate the damage to the environment and its human and animal inhabitants.

Pick your venue. The families whose lives and culture are dependent upon the intricate web of waterways along the Gulf Coast of the United States are in a fix similar to that of the indigenous people zapped by nonstop oil spills and the oil-related pollution in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Each group is fearful about its future. Both have been treated contemptuously.

The oil companies don’t care. Shell can’t wait to begin drilling in the Arctic Ocean off the northern coast of Alaska, an area that would pose monumental problems for anyone trying to deal with a catastrophic spill. The companies pretend that the spills won’t happen. They always say that their drilling operations are safe. They said that before drilling off Santa Barbara, and in the rainforest in Ecuador, and in the Gulf of Mexico, and everywhere else they drill.

Their assurances mean nothing.

President Obama has suspended Shell’s Arctic drilling permits and has temporarily halted the so-called Arctic oil rush. What we’ve learned from the BP debacle in the gulf, and from the rainforest, and so many other places, is just how reckless and inept the oil companies can be when it comes to safeguarding life, limb and the environment.

They’re dangerous. They need the most stringent kind of oversight, and swift and severe sanctions for serious wrongdoing. At the same time, we need to be searching with a much, much greater sense of urgency for viable energy alternatives. Treating the Amazon and the gulf and the Arctic as if they were nothing more than toxic waste sites is an affront to the planet and all life-forms that inhabit it.

Chevron doesn’t believe it should be called to account for any of the sins Texaco may have committed in the Amazon. A spokesman told me that the allegations of environmental damage were wildly overstated and that even if Texaco had caused some pollution, it had cleaned it up and reached an agreement with the Ecuadorian government that precluded further liability.

The indigenous residents may be suffering (they’re in much worse shape than the people on the gulf coast) but the Chevron-Texaco crowd feels real good about itself. The big money was made, and the trash was left behind.

 www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/opinio…

——————–

Curse of the Black Gold

Hope and betrayal on the Niger Delta.

 ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/0…

From Tom O’Neill, February 2007, The National Geographic.
National Geographic staff

Nigeria, 1970s-present — The Delta

Over the decades, aging and ill-maintained pipelines in the Niger Delta of Nigeria have been estimated to spill more than the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a slow-moving disaster (read this article from National Geographic magazine) that local people say is poisoning drinking water and ruining fisheries and farmland.

Oil companies say many spills are caused by insurgents or thieves who cut the pipelines. They say insurgent violence has kept them from doing normal cleanups when spills occur.

— —

At independence in 1960, few observers expected that Nigeria would mature into an oil giant. But in subsequent decades, the oil companies, led by five multinational firms—Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Italy’s Agip, and ExxonMobil and Chevron from the U.S.—transformed a remote, nearly inaccessible wetland into industrial wilderness. The imprint: 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) of pipelines, 159 oil fields, and 275 flow stations, their gas flares visible day and night from miles away.

No one can deny the sheer technological achievement of building an infrastructure to extract oil from a waterlogged equatorial forest. Intense swampy heat, nearly impenetrable mangrove thickets, swarming insects, and torrential downpours bedevil operations to this day. But mastering the physical environment has proved almost simple compared with dealing with the social and cultural landscape. The oil firms entered a region splintered by ethnic rivalries. More than two dozen ethnic groups inhabit the delta, among them the Ijaw, the largest group, and the Igbo, Itsekiri, Ogoni, Isoko, and Urhobo. These groups have a history of fighting over the spoils of the delta, from slaves to palm oil—and now, crude oil. The companies disturbed a fragile landscape that supported fishing and farming. Engineers and project managers constructing pipelines through a mangrove swamp, or laying roads through marshland, could disrupt spawning grounds or change the course of a stream, threatening a village’s livelihood.

Recent reports by the United Nations Development Program and the International Crisis Group identify some of the questionable strategies employed by oil companies: paying off village chiefs for drilling rights; building a road or dredging a canal without an adequate environmental impact study; tying up compensation cases—for resource damages or land purchases—for years in court; dispatching security forces to violently break up protests; patching up oil leaks without cleaning up sites.

“After 50 years, the oil companies are still searching for a way to operate successfully with communities,” says Antony Goldman, a London-based risk consultant. The delta is littered with failed projects started by oil companies and government agencies—water tanks without operating pumps, clinics with no medicine, schools with no teachers or books, fishponds with no fish.

“The companies didn’t consult with villagers,” says Michael Watts, director of the African Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley. “They basically handed out cash to chiefs. It wasn’t effective at all.”

Last summer, skittish oil prices hit $78 a barrel, partly because of an attack on a Shell flow station. The high prices more than offset production losses caused by the growing instability, helping earn Shell and the other multinationals record profits in 2006. Meanwhile, more oil fields continue to open, many of them offshore where the infrastructure, though far more expensive than on land, is much safer from sabotage and theft. The deepwater fields are attracting aggressive new investors as well. China, India, and South Korea, all energy-hungry, have begun buying stakes in Nigeria’s offshore blocks. “Most Western companies in Nigeria will find it difficult to compete, especially with China,” Goldman says. That’s because oil purchases by the Chinese come with their commitment to finance large infrastructure projects, such as rehabilitating a railroad line.

The largest new petroleum endeavor on the delta is taking shape along the Nun River, a tributary of the Niger. Operated by Shell, the Gbaran Integrated Oil and Gas Project, scheduled to begin producing in 2008, will encompass 15 new oil and gas fields, more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) of pipeline, and a sizable gas-gathering plant. New roads are already gashing the forest. Mounds of long black pipes await burial. Near a bank of the Nun, Nigerian soldiers crouch behind a ring of sandbags, a .60-caliber machine gun facing the road as they guard the entrance to the construction site of the gas plant. Cranes and bulldozers crawl over a cleared space large enough to fit two shopping malls. From the air, it must look as if a patch of skin has been removed from the face of the forest.

Activists with human rights groups are pressuring Shell to learn from past mistakes and treat this high-profile project, which affects 90 villages, as a chance to work better with communities. Michael Watts is advising NGOs on how to educate the local people about their rights. “For Shell to conduct business as usual would be a public relations disaster,” Watts says. “Folks say, ‘Look, these oil companies are making billions by taking out this black stuff from our territory—they should have some ethical and social responsibilities.'”

A cautionary tale unfolds at Oloibiri, where a wellhead, or “Christmas tree,” stands in an overgrown plot. Nothing has flowed from it for years. A weathered sign states the facts: “Oloibiri Well No. 1. Drilled June, 1956. Depth: 12,000 feet (3,700 meters).” Nearby, a plaque dating from 2001 commemorates a presidential visit and the laying of a foundation stone for the Oloibiri Oil and Gas Research Institute, a projected government-funded museum and library. The stone is still there, but nothing else. A few local youths guard the site, not so much to protect it as to demand money from anyone who wants to snap a picture.

In the town of Oloibiri, whose population has dropped from 10,000 to fewer than 1,000 in the past 30 years, a dirt road passes between rough-hewn houses, some roofed with thatch, others with sheets of corroding metal. A small shop offers a few bananas and yams. Inside the only freshly painted structure, a lemon yellow, two-story house, Chief Osobere Inengite of the Ijaw tribe apologizes for the appearance of his town: “Oloibiri is supposed to be compared to Texas,” he said. “I ask you, in Texas have the people in 50 years seen one second of darkness? But look here, we have no light, no water, no food, no jobs.”

The chief looked prosperous. He was wearing an ornate black-and-purple robe, a chunky coral necklace, and a black derby, his outfit for a neighboring chief’s coronation downriver in Nembe later that day. Like most chiefs, Inengite has a business—dredging sand from the river for roadbuilding. He always keeps an eye out for visitors to Nigeria’s historic Well No. 1. He wants them to leave Oloibiri with a message for Shell, which owns the local oil fields. “Tell them to help us. Tell them to train 50 boys and girls from here for jobs,” the chief pleaded. Then he sighed, “If we had never seen oil, we would have been better off.”

Where does all the oil money go? That question is asked in every village, town, and city in the Niger Delta. The blame spreads, moving from the oil companies to a bigger, more elusive, target: the Nigerian government. Ever since it nationalized the oil industry in 1971, the government has controlled the energy purse. In a joint venture arrangement, the state, in the name of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, owns 55 to 60 percent of multinational oil operations onshore. The windfall in revenues from this arrangement has grown in real dollars from 250 million a year to more than 60 billion in 2005. During that time, even though the government has evolved from a military dictatorship to a democracy (the latest attempt at civil governance began in 1999), what has not changed is what an International Crisis Group report calls a “cancer of corruption.” A Western diplomat quoted in the report was even more direct, referring to “the institutionalized looting of national wealth.” The money involved is staggering. The head of Nigeria’s anticorruption agency estimated that in 2003, 70 percent of oil revenues, more than 14 billion dollars, was stolen or wasted.

— —

Oil companies operated in the delta for years with little environmental oversight. There was no federal environmental protection agency until 1988, and environmental impact assessments weren’t mandated until 1992. What pressure the government exerts now is directed mostly at halting gas flares. Delta oil fields contain large amounts of natural gas that companies have traditionally elected to burn off rather than store or reinject into the ground, more costly measures. Hundreds of flares have burned nonstop for decades, releasing greenhouse gases and causing acid rain. Communities complain of corroded roofs, crop failures, and respiratory diseases. After first ordering companies to eliminate flaring by 1984, the government keeps pushing back the deadline. Shell, the main offender, recently announced that despite making considerable progress, it could not meet the latest target date of 2008.

On land, there are oil spills, polluting groundwater and ruining cropland. The government documented 6,817 spills between 1976 and 2001—practically one a day for 25 years—but analysts suspect that the real number may be ten times higher. Old, improperly maintained equipment causes many of the leaks, but oil operators blame sabotage and theft, speculating that disaffected community members deliberately cause oil spills to collect compensation money.

— —

Well 13 in Shell’s Yorla field had been leaking for five days when I got there. Members of the nearby Ogoni village of Kpean had assembled around a five-foot-high (1.5 meters) wellhead that stood in the midst of high grass. Puffs of smoke drifted from the iron structure. Oil dripped from its sides into a spreading lake.

“We’re expecting Shell, but no one has come yet,” a villager said. “Soon the oil will leak into the creek over there and spoil our drinking water.”

Shell and Ogoniland share a tragic history. Nigeria’s first mass protest against the oil industry emerged in these tribal lands southeast of Port Harcourt. In 1990, the charismatic writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, outraged by oil spills in Ogoniland, founded the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People. The organization demanded control of the oil on Ogoni lands and an end to environmental damage. A quarter of a million Ogoni, nearly half the population, rallied in early 1993 to support the cause. Later that year, Shell, citing security concerns, halted production from its 96 wells in Ogoniland—though oil from wells outside the area continued to flow in pipelines through Ogoni territory.

Alarmed by Saro-Wiwa’s popular support, Nigeria’s military government brought charges of murder against him and fellow activists. The government accused them of instigating the mob killings of four Ogoni leaders from a rival faction. At a tribunal widely regarded as a sham, and with the alleged complicity of Shell, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were found guilty and hanged in 1995. Though the world community reacted with outrage, and Saro-Wiwa’s son initiated a lawsuit against Shell for human rights abuses (which is ongoing), the situation has not improved. In fact, Isaac Osuoka told me, “things have gotten worse since Ken was murdered.”

— —

No one is sure how many delta people have picked up the gun to fight for their rights. Estimates range from the low hundreds to the low thousands. What is certain is that each time the military reacts with extreme measures, the number rises.

The rebels seem unafraid, as when a hundred or so MEND members and supporters gathered openly at a morgue in the city of Warri for the funeral service of nine militants killed on the water in an ambush by the Nigerian military. Afterward, MEND leaders invited the press to accompany boats taking the caskets to villages for burial. Along the way, men waved guns from jetties, and white flags flew from huts. The men wore conspicuous red-and-white ties knotted around their arms. The ties and flags were symbols of Egbesu, the Ijaw god of war. Warriors wear the knots as protection against death, believing that having taken an oath to Egbesu, nothing metal—neither bullet nor machete—can harm them. Farther on, a rebel camp sat brazenly on a riverbank, the blue roofs of its barracks plainly visible to oil company helicopters.

No solution seems in sight for the Niger Delta. The oil companies are keeping their heads down, desperate to safeguard their employees and the flow of oil. The military, ordered to meet force with force, have stepped up patrols in cities and on waterways. The militants are intensifying a deadly guerrilla offensive, hoping that rising casualties and oil prices will force the government to negotiate. National elections in April could exacerbate the violence, especially if politicians resort to the practice of hiring youth gangs to deliver votes at gunpoint.

Optimism is as scarce as blue sky in the sodden delta. “Everyone was sure they would be blessed with the coming of the black gold and live as well as people in other parts of the world,” said Patrick Amaopusanibo, a retired businessman who now farms near the village of Oloama. He had to speak loudly to compete with the “black noise,” the hissing and roaring of a gas flare near his cassava field. “But we have nothing. I feel cheated.”

In some parts of the Niger Delta, oil still looks like a miracle. In the run-down fishing village of Oweikorogba on the Nun River, where families of ten sleep in a single room under leaky thatch roofs, hope materialized a year ago in the form of Chinese prospectors. They left without finding oil, but the people of Oweikorogba want them back, confident that they’ll find a pot of gold. And if a stranger warns these villagers that oil is a curse in Nigeria, they will look at him and say: “We want oil here. It will make everything better.”

———————————

Russia, 1970s-present — The Arctic

Like Nigeria, the former Soviet Union has a system of aging and ill-maintained oil pipelines and other facilities inherited from the former Soviet Union.

One incident in 1994 spilled more than 2 million barrels of oil onto the tundra in the Komi region of north Russia. The spilled oil was contained by a dike that later collapsed, allowing oil to flow into nearby rivers.

Russia’s state-owned oil company claimed the spill was far smaller than reported by the Western media, and said it was cleaned up. Greenpeace called the environmental damage “irreparable.”

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