The news in 2009 and into 2010 was heavily occupied with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf; it made headlines in the US and around the world for months, and scores of people tuned in for live feeds of the ocean floor while engineers struggled to cap the gushing well. All of these fascinated watchers were strangely silent in late 2011 when a massive oil spill occurred off the coast of Nigeria, one in a long sequence of serious spills and pipeline ruptures that are a daily fact of life for people living in Nigeria.
In fact, more oil is spilled from the delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico, the site of a major ecological catastrophe caused by oil that has poured from a leak triggered by the explosion that wrecked BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig [in 2010]. (source)
Nigeria may be an oil-rich nation, but that comes at a high cost, with constant oil spills, leaks, and ruptures that endanger human and environmental health. These events are common, and rarely reported in the media; when they are, there’s often a heavy side of poverty porn with it, portraying the ‘poor Nigerians’ and their struggle with the oil industry. Examination of the West’s complicity in the ongoing problems in Nigeria is absent, and so is a critical evaluation of why it is, precisely, that Nigeria in particular has such problems with oil spills.
There are vague discussions about poor infrastructure maintenance and corruption is implied as a factor, but these stories rarely drill down both into what is happening in Nigeria, and why. There’s an acceptance of the idea that of course Nigeria would have lots of oil spills, for some reason, although that reason isn’t really made evident; because Nigeria has lots of oil, perhaps? Is that what readers are supposed to think?
Alaska is also oil rich, with routine oil and gas extraction occurring across the state. It doesn’t have problems anywhere near those occurring in Nigeria and other African nations with oil deposits. There’s a reason for this disparity and it’s a simple and ugly one: This is a direct consequence of environmental racism, and a refusal to face this fact is a grave disservice.
Oil operators in Alaska are well aware that setting one toe out of line could jeopardise their operations forever, in addition to making them look very, very bad. Alaska is, after all, a western country, with watchful eyes on it, including those of activists who would seize upon a major spill or pipeline rupture to argue that oil and gas production in the state should be shut down or severely curtailed. Operators in Alaska are forced to follow safety recommendations, to maintain functional systems, to monitor their equipment, because they need to maintain goodwill, and they are in a state where the people in power are white, and they have clout.
By contrast, operators can afford to be sloppy and outright reckless in former colonies in Africa, because they have nothing to lose. They are well aware that the eyes of the world are not on these regions; that despite the fact that Nigeria has basically been experiencing continuous oil spills for decades, spills which, over time, have dwarfed that of Deepwater Horizon, the amount of coverage dedicated to the issue is scant. It’s sandwiched into environmental and progressive publications with limited readerships, and when it does appear in the mass media, it’s skimmed over in favour of something people think will be more interesting, like the results of a sports match.
It’s perfectly acceptable to push pollutants and environmental problems onto the global south, in the eyes of oil and gas companies, both because no one is watching, and because they don’t recognise the populations of the regions they exploit as human beings. The west is perfectly happy to go along with this because it carries so many advantages for us. We want cheap oil and gas, and we don’t want to think about the human costs that go along with that. And we want to keep nations in the global south dependent on foreign aid and assistance because this keeps them subservient to us; as long as they need assistance with meeting basic needs, they can’t fight back when the west dumps pollution in their back yards.
In the west, there was silence on the oil spill in 2011, just as there is silence on the ongoing oil problems in Nigeria, because to say something would be to open a floodgate; if we talk about what is happening in Nigeria, we need to confront environmental racism and the role it plays in oil and gas exploration. If we discuss this issue, we need to talk about racism in the media and the types of stories that air on Nigeria, and why it is that major coverage of oil problems in Nigeria isn’t profitable and won’t draw readers. If we challenge oil and gas operators to clean up their mess and to use environmentally sound practices moving forward, we condemn ourselves to higher prices for oil and gas. And if the west acknowledges that racism and colonialism are what keeps our petroleum prices low, then westerners have to feel guilty about using those resources.
So, a persistent blackout on discussions about the connections between racism, exploitation, and conditions in many ex-colonies. A cheap price at the pump is paid in blood, not just future environmental problems.