Fossil fuels have driven current modes of civilisation for over one and a half centuries. Coal, crude oil and gas enabled the world to shift from humans and animals as energy generators to machines that opened the highway to endless consumption. Crude oil appears cheap because the real costs are externalised. Today, with the days of easy oils ending we are seeing a push into extraction in deep waters and fragile ecosystems.
Some of the fragile ecosystems already being drilled include those in the Niger Delta, Amazon forest and the Rift Valley of East Africa where oil and gas are being exploited in pristine environments and nature reserves. Already, oil companies and partner politicians are seeking to drill in the Arctic region (where melting glaciers are seen as an opportunity and not an alarm), Yasuni ITT in Ecuador and offshore Lofoten in Norway. These and similar places should be clearly off limits to polluting activities.
The end of easy oil is equally driving the increased adventures into fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and deadly extraction of tar sands in Canada and elsewhere. While fracking is increasing domestic supply of oil and gas in the USA, tar sands increase fossil fuel exports from Canada; they are equally bringing up higher levels of environmental degradation with attendant health impacts that clearly impinge on human rights of citizens.
Agents of market fundamentalism such as the World Bank have issued warnings that except 80% of known fossil fuel reserves are left underground the world is set to experience extreme global warming that would have catastrophic effects. Unfortunately, the same World Bank is promoting dirty fossil fuels energy projects including coal-fired power plants.
Humanity urgently needs to get off the fossil fuels anesthesia to be able to see that the extractive logic is simply not the way to keep a development path that has gone bankrupt. Consumption and endless growth present the dilemma of systemic greed overtaking inherent human greed and desire for accumulation of resources. Endless growth does not recognise that nature has boundaries and requires huge spans of time to replenish depleted resources.
I have a dream. I have the dream that one day, offshore oil platforms and floating stations will become wind and solar farms. I have a dream.
The impunity of oil spills
Coming from a country where there is an equivalent of one Exxon Valdez volume of crude oil spewed into our environment yearly, it is inescapably clear that the petroleum sector is a very polluting sector. According to Senator Saraki, chair of Nigerian Senate’s committee on environment, “Oil spillage is not an oil business it is an environmental problem. Oil spill is an irresponsible environmental behaviour. The fact that it is as a result of oil exploration does not detract from the impact on the environment. Nigeria has lost over 13 million barrels of oil to preventable spills.” Senator Saraki added, “It has been acknowledged by several reports including the UNEP Report that fifty per cent (50%) of oil spills in Nigeria has been due to corrosion of oil infrastructure, twenty eight per cent (28%) to sabotage and twenty one per cent (21%) to oil production operations. One per cent (1%) of oil spills is due to engineering drills, inability to effectively control oil wells, failure of machines, and inadequate care in loading and unloading oil vessels. It is the responsibility of the spiller to rehabilitate oil spill sites. It is as simple as that. The number of identified sites is over 2,000. The majority of these sites are sites with identified spillers. This gives an indication of the problem we already have in our hands.” (1)
It is obvious that there cannot be this level of ecological impunity without human rights being consistently trampled on. One quote from a Shell general manager in Nigeria in 1995 underscores the fact that impunity is good for some business:
“For a commercial company trying to make investments, you need a stable environment…Dictatorships can give you that.” (2) This statement was made in early 1995 and by November Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni compatriots were hung by the dictatorship in power in Nigeria at that time.
Earlier in 1990, when the community of Umuechem protested against Shell’s oil operations, Shell sent an urgent request for government security protection, requesting the “Mobile Police” – units well-known for their brutality. The result was a two-day wave of violence that left 80 people dead and nearly 500 houses destroyed. (3)
Umuechem heralded a reign of terror that was visited upon the Ogoni people when, a few years later, they rose up in protest against oil operations that had resulted in minuscule local benefits but tremendous environmental costs. Again Shell relied on Nigerian security forces to secure its operations. Hundreds of Ogonis were arrested, tortured, and killed.
Efforts to obtain justice have taken impacted Nigerians to courts in Europe and USA. There is the case of four farmers and fishermen suing Shell in The Netherlands over pollution in Nigeria. Judgement is expected on 30 January 2013 in that case.
In 2002, a group of Nigerian plaintiffs brought suit under the ATS in a U.S. federal court against a Shell’s parent company, Royal Dutch Petroleum, for assisting in extrajudicial killings, torture, and crimes against humanity against the Ogoni people. These plaintiffs were living in the United States because they had received asylum from the U.S. government due to their persecution in Nigeria. On February 28, 2012, the case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell), was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Since then, the Supreme Court has ordered a second round of arguments, which took take place on 1 October 2012. This case is currently before the US Supreme Court with Shell launching a critical attack on human rights protections before the court by trying to gut a 200-year-old American law called the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). This law was originally used to bring cases against pirates but has developed into a way to bring suit against individuals and corporations that commit the worst types of human rights abuses like genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity.
The oil company’s arguments are interesting: They argue that U.S. law should not allow holding companies responsible for committing the most severe atrocities. They also claim that domestic U.S. courts have no business in holding multinational corporations responsible for human rights abuses, especially those that happen in other countries.
If the Supreme Court does what Shell’s asking it to do — grant immunity for human rights abuses committed overseas — this would allow mega-corporations to operate by a different set of rules around the world and would turn the clock back more than 200 years.
Oil has not only driven global warming, it drives human rights abuses including destroying environments and human lives.
(1) Abubakar Bukola Saraki.2012. Lead Debate on a Bill for an Act to Amend the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Act 2006 to provide for Penalties and Compensation for Oil Spills and for Other Related Matters 2012. Abuja, Nigeria
(2) Eduardo Galeano. 2000. Upside Down – A Primer for the Looking-glass World. Translated by Mark Fried. New York, Picador USA
(3) Nnimmo Bassey. 2012. Why Human Rights protection Matter. Extracts from this Op-ed article provides the material on this case.
By NnimmoBassey, Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and Oilwatch Africa, email: firstname.lastname@example.org