Oil, Blood, and Fire: Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland, Nigeria

Over fifty years of Shell Petroleum Development Company Ltd (SPDC)  activity in Nigeria has transformed a once fertile landscape into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Oil exploitation in Ogoniland, Niger Delta, chronicled as an era of “oil, blood, and fire,” has been overshadowed by incessant oil spills, gas flaring, and extrajudicial killings [1]. While SPDC oil exploration in Ogoniland ended in 1993 after violent clashes with Ogoni resistance movements, abandoned SPDC oil facilities were never decommissioned. Consequently, aged and rusting pipelines that indiscriminately cut through farmlands, creeks, and forests, continue to leach oil, contaminating water, soil, and vegetation [2].

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Figure 1. Map of oil infrastructure in Ogoniland (www.unep.org).
Negotiations, initiatives, reconciliation, and protests have failed to deliver a lasting resolution that meets the culpability and expectations of all stakeholders. In an attempt to navigate the impasse, the Nigerian Federal Government requested the UNEP undertake a comprehensive assessment of the environmental and public health impacts of oil contamination in Ogoniland [3].

Figure 2. UNEP members gather data for the environmental assessment in Ogoniland (www.unep.org).

Throughout the 14-month period, the UNEP examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometers of pipelines, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records, and engaged over 23,000 people at community meetings [3]. The UNEP study, “Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland,” released in 2011, lambasts SPDC and the Federal Government for inaction over oil contamination, concluding that the remediation of Ogoniland will take between 25 to 30 years, costing an initial US$ 1 billion. The report reveals extensive hydrocarbon pollution in surface water throughout the creeks of Ogoniland and up to 8 cm in groundwater. In 49 observed sites, hydrocarbons have contaminated the soil up to a depth of five meters. Further, benzene, a known carcinogen, was found in drinking wells at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organization guideline [3]. Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, said, “The oil industry has been a key sector of the Nigerian economy for over 50 years, but many Nigerians have paid a high price, as this assessment underlines” [4]. It is the hope that the UNEP environmental assessment can catalyze environmental justice, providing a foundation to remedy the many environmental and social issues facing Ogoniland.

Figure 3. An oil spill and fire broke out along the Trans Niger Pipeline managed by Shell (www.thescoopng.com).
Sadly, two years after the landmark report, the Federal Government has demonstrated scant commitment towards implementing any UNEP recommendations [5, 6, 7]. While the Federal Government established the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) to “implement the recommendations of the UNEP report on Ogoniland as well as investigate, evaluate and establish other hydrocarbon impacted sites,” it has failed to enforce any UNEP recommendations [8]. Furthermore, there was no provision made for HYPREP in the 2013 federal budget, questioning the Federal Governments’ commitment towards Ogoniland [9]. Thus, beyond foot-dragging and the apparent lack of reforms, monitoring and enforcement, and improved practices, these approaches, or lack there of, guarantees SPDC does not take responsibility for its activities.

As for SPDC, it welcomed and committed itself to the UNEP findings by reviewing its Remediation Management System; completing an inventory of assets in Ogoniland; and meeting with government regulators to discuss and clarify the Environmental Guidelines and Standards for Petroleum Industry in Nigeria [10]. In a statement, SPDC managing director, Mutiu Sunmonu said, “(SPDC) is already reviewing its remediation practices and looking to involve independent international experts in assessing how it can improve” [11]. Moreover, the “SPDC is involved in the recommendations of the UNEP report and is involved in extensive, delicate dialogue between SPDC, the other players in the Nigerian oil industry and the Nigerian government how to provide the cleaning fund of $US 1 billion in response to UNEP call” [9]. However, beyond such lip-services, SPDC has failed to remediate any contaminated sites or decommission a single facilities in Ogoniland. Beyond its public relation mission, SPDC undermines its commitment to environmental justice by perpetuating the rhetoric and simplistic narrative that ongoing environmental degradation in the Niger Delta is a consequence of “sabotage, illegal refining, and bunkering” [11].

In August 2013 protests re-emerged in Ogoniland over the sustained inaction by the Federal Government and SPDC to protect the Ogoni and remediate the region [12]. Remediation is “not a complicated process…but it requires a high level of commitment” says Nenibarini Zabbey, contamination expert at the Centre for Human Rights and Development [13]. Thus, the parties responsible must take action, fulfilling the UNEP recommendations. Delaying implementation of the UNEP recommendations will only exacerbate the environmental degradation of the region and undermine the livelihoods of the Ogoni.Ultimately, if the cries of the Ogoni are disregarded, the region could experience a resurgence of oil-based militancy.


[1] Omotola, Shola J. 2006. “The Next Gulf? Oil Politics, Environmental Apocalypse and Rising Tension in the Niger Delta.” http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=j_shola_omotola.
[2] Ibeanu, Okechukwu. 2000. “Oiling the Friction: Environmental Conflict Management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria.” Environmental Change and Security Project Report 6: 19–32.
[3] United Nations Environment Programme. 2011. Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland. Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme.
[4] “UNEP Ogoniland Oil Assessment Reveals Extent of Environmental Contamination and Threats to Human Health – UNEP.” 2013. Accessed October 4. http://www.unep.org/newscentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=2649&ArticleID=8827.
[5] “Stakeholder Democracy Network – News, Reports and Analysis.” 2013. Stakeholder Democracy. Accessed October 2. http://www.stakeholderdemocracy.org/cgblog/545/89/A-Broken-Pledge-The-Failure-to-act-on-the-UNEP-Report.html.
[6] “EnviroNews Nigeria  » Two Years after UNEP Report, Shell Urged to Clean up Ogoniland Mess.” 2013. EnviroNews Nigeria. Accessed October 7. http://www.environewsnigeria.com/2013/08/04/two-years-after-unep-report-shell-urged-to-clean-up-ogoniland-mess/.
[7] “EXCLUSIVE: OGONI: UN Worried over Jonathan’s Inaction.” 2013. Premium Times Nigeria. Accessed October 3. http://premiumtimesng.com/news/4285-ogoni_un_worried_over_jonathan_s_inaction.html.
[8] “UNPO: Ogoni: Mitigating Impacts Of Environmental Disaster.” 2013. Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Accessed October 7. http://www.unpo.org/article/14638.
[9] “Ogoni Pollution: Society Clamours For State of Emergency | Scoop News.” 2013. Scoop. Accessed October 5. http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO1308/S00063/ogoni-pollution-society-clamours-for-state-of-emergency.htm.
[10] “SPDC Action on Matters Addressed in the UNEP Report – Nigeria.” 2013. Accessed October 5. http://www.shell.com.ng/environment-society/our-response.html.
[11] “United Nations Report on Nigeria Oil Spills – Nigeria.” 2013. Shell Nigeria. Accessed October 5. http://www.shell.com.ng/environment-society/our-response/unep-response.html.
[12] “UNPO: Ogoni Activists Protest for Their Environment.” 2013. Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Accessed October 4. http://www.unpo.org/article/16269.
[13] Cocks, Tim. 2012. “Insight: A Year on, Nigeria’s Oil Still Poisons Ogoniland.” Reuters, August 5. Accessed October 3. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/05/us-nigeria-oilpollution-idUSBRE87408Q20120805.


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