The BP oil spill has opened our eyes to things we were far too content to leave in the background for so long. Environmental protections and safeguards were routinely thrown to the wind in the flurry to get corporate profits pumping fast. What you don’t see, doesn’t hurt you, so most of us close our eyes a lot, and it takes something spectacular like a hurricane or an oil spill to open them again to the sort of things going on in the background all the time.
What happens when BP’s unit ruptures and dumps hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean each day (not to mention killing a dozen workers!)?
People scream loudly, BP steps in with promises to compensate, the president organizes a taskforce to review the laws and propose a new round of tighter regulation, people get really concerned about the effects of all this oil on local ecosystems and the businesses (like fisheries) that do business in them.
But what happens when the same thing and worse happens in Nigeria? Just the opposite: no one takes notice, no one is there to check the power of the corporation (Shell oil, most infamously), and those who step up to protest are assassinated by the oil company itself. Here is some analysis by a policy studies think tank:
As the global media draws attention to the effect of the BP oil spill on Louisiana’s commercial fishing industry and the state’s precarious wetlands, Niger Deltans face total yearly spills of up to 14,000 tons, all the while conscious of the huge wealth being derived from their environment with no resulting benefits in the shape of housing, medical facilities or decent roads despite some US$700 billion in revenue. Perhaps most infamously, Shell was also accused in a 1995 US lawsuit of involvement in the assassinations of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and the ‘Ogoni Nine’ at the time of the Abacha military regime, a suit leading to an out-of-court settlement of US$15.5 million but no admission of liability on the company’s part. Compare this to the recent experience of the US’s south, with BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward commenting: ‘We will absolutely be paying for the clean-up operation. There is no doubt about that. It’s our responsibility‚ we accept it fully.’ In much the same vein, Deepwater Horizon has prompted US senators’ calls to make oil companies liable for up to US$10 billion for the cost of a spill.
In light of the immediate reparations available to the US in the wake of the BP spill, the contrast with the Nigerian example seemingly demonstrates the higher value placed on human life and existence in a richer part of the world.