Arctic Drilling? What About the Niger Delta?

I regularly get emails from environmental groups about stopping Shell from drilling in the Arctic. I know that many organizations I don’t get emails from also spend a lot of time on it (e.g. Greenpeace). Today I had enough. I honestly just don’t care that much about stopping Arctic drilling.

In 2008, an oil pipeline leaked in the Niger Delta, a rich, ecologically diverse wetland region with a large human population. Shell claimed the pipe only leaked 1,600 barrels. This April, Amnesty International obtained an assessment by an independent group, Accufacts, that the spill was probably more than 103,000 barrels and possibly as much as 311,000 barrels. To put that into perspective, the Exxon Valdez spilled somewhere between 260,000 and 750,000 barrels. There’s obviously controversy about both these numbers, but they are similar orders of magnitude. The Niger Delta has probably seen 9 to 11 million barrels of spilled oil since 1958. Environmental damage is obviously ongoing. The effects on people living there is an ongoing human health hazard. While the Deepwater Horizon disaster may have spilled a comparable 4.9 million barrels in one event, the Canadian tar sands may be ugly and fracking is confusing and worrying, our newly enlivened concern for oil pollution rings hollow in the face of decades of pollution worldwide.

Even if the entire world starts aggressively trying to de-carbonize our civilization’s energy tomorrow, we’re going to be using oil for quite a while1. I’d rather extract it in my backyard under effective regulatory regimes than continue to support the status quo of heavily polluting extraction in places like the Niger Delta (to say nothing of human rights abuses in many oil-extracting nations). Alternately, we could actually work to improve existing extraction. But militantly fighting new oil extraction in US territory while doing little or nothing to encourage support for improving oil extraction elsewhere is willfully blind. Morally we should accept the consequences: possibly riskier domestic production or actually spending money and political capital improving oil extraction elsewhere. I however see no signs that major environmental organizations are prepared to acknowledge this harsh reality.

In the past when I’ve expressed annoyance at, for example, Greenpeace spending so much energy on stupid stunts to vilify Shell for their Arctic drilling plans while ignoring the ongoing environmental and human rights abuse in the Niger Delta, people have pointed out that Greenpeace and other environmentalist groups do care about oil pollution elsewhere but it just doesn’t get eyeballs. That is, bringing attention to Arctic drilling plans also brings money and resources to deal with oil-related ecological problems everywhere.

But is it really true that environmental organizations advocate for cleaning up the Niger Delta? This will be a biased sample (since I’m picking the organizations that either annoy me or I’ve signed up for their emails), but my judgement is “not really”. The main international organizations I do see driving awareness of pollution in the Niger Delta are ones like Amnesty International which care about the people harmed by it directly, not environmental pollution per se.

Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity goes first because their email triggered this post — but I get similar emails and see online petitions from other groups all the time. A Google search of their site, limited to the time range January 1, 2007 to December 31, 2012, and the terms “niger delta shell oil” (obviously without quotes in the google search box) results in a couple PDFs. Neither appear to be about the Niger Delta, but rather threatened species that live in deltas that also have “niger” in their species name (since it means black or dark). Note that the time range is intentional in order to restrict to recent events where they might reasonably have responded to the 2008 spill or the 2012 news. A search of their website directly yields similar results.

Now, the CBD is most concerned about preserving diversity of species, not just ecological harm in general. So perhaps supposedly pristine environments in the Arctic need more rigorous defense than a region that is already heavily impacted by humans — though there’s plenty of biodiversity being destroyed in the Niger Delta.

Sierra Club

The Sierra Club has a much more diverse mission but is heavily skewed towards the United States. They too want to prevent drilling for oil in the Arctic but you also won’t find much on their site about the Niger Delta, though there’s just barely more than CBD (still fewer than half a dozen pages, none a policy position). Of course, if we don’t drill in the Arctic or support other forms of domestic extraction, we’re just outsourcing oil extraction to the rest of the world, including the Niger Delta, Bahrain, and more2.


Finally! Greenpeace does appear to care about the Niger Delta. But if you limit it to 2012 — this is when we learned that Shell “understated” the extent of the 2008 spill — then there are only around 20 results, many repeated across languages and a large number are about Arctic drilling. If you were to visit their site directly, you might be forgiven for thinking Arctic drilling is the most critical threat facing our world: the “Take Action” item in their navigation bar redirects to Save the Arctic which is broadly about threats to Arctic ecologies — oil drilling is listed first. But that’s the US site — perhaps it’s different internationally … I guess not. Tellingly, a google search for niger delta shell oil Accufacts3 results in zilch. Though Greenpeace does much, much better on this than the other organzations, they don’t seem prepared to actually advocate for effective policies, just bans.

Isn’t this complaint fallacious?

Yes, it is. Just because people want to advocate on one topic, doesn’t mean they don’t care about another. I know that. Moreover, the lack of a position paper or a nice section of a website doesn’t necessarily mean these organizations lack interest in cleaning up existing oil extraction regions. But they all oppose Arctic extraction and usually also fracking and the Canadian oil sands. What am I to think? The ethics and the math just don’t work for me. They shrilly bombard the public with the idea that the oil industry operating in the United States is lawless. That’s laughable in the face of real lawless behavior. At least if Shell operates here they are subject to a much more effective regulatory system. We’re going to keep burning oil for a while. Electric cars aren’t going to corner the market tomorrow. Is it right to refuse to risk our own backyard while ignoring others’?

  1. I highly recommend this website and book. It’s clear that we will need massive build-outs of many different alternate energy sources to get off carbon fuels. De-carbonizing personal transport is especially hard because we actually have to invent significantly improved technology as well.

  2. Several other top oil producing nations have large environmental problems to say nothing of human rights violations in many (maybe most) of them.

  3. Accufacts is the name of the organization that did the assessment of the 2008 spill and is mentioned in the Guardian article.