You Think America Has A Lot of Oil Spills? Welcome to Nigeria, “the World Capital of Oil Pollution”

Wednesday, Shell claimed responsibility for two oil spills dating back to 2008. And these are not your run of the mill destructive oil spills — they are estimated to exceed the 11 million gallons spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster. Until yesterday, Shell had claimed less than 40,000 gallons had been spilled in Nigeria … off by a factor of 275.

The claim comes after years of class-action lawsuit from the people of Bodo in Ogoniland, a region in the Niger Delta of Southern Nigeria. Shell could be facing hundreds of millions of dollars in fines.

The trouble with oil in Nigeria started in 1956, when oil was first discovered. (See the Guardian for a history of oil in Nigeria). How devastating has the oil industry been to Nigeria? As a 2010 article by the Guardian’s environment editor explained:

With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution. Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 years over the past two generations….


It is impossible to know how much oil is spilled in the Niger delta each year because the companies and the government keep that secret. However, two major independent investigations over the past four years suggest that as much is spilled at sea, in the swamps and on land every year as has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico so far.

One report, compiled by WWF UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian federal government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, calculated in 2006 that up to 1.5m tons of oil — 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska — has been spilled in the delta over the past half century. Last year Amnesty calculated that the equivalent of at least 9m barrels of oil was spilled and accused the oil companies of a human rights outrage.

According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites, many going back decades, with thousands of smaller ones still waiting to be cleared up. More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell alone.

While we are often focused on spills on American soil, from Alaska, to Montana, to Florida, to the proposed tar sands pipeline, we cannot forget that oil is a global problem — a problem that requires a global push for renewable energies solution.

Tyce Herrman