One rule for the West and another for the rest? Oil spills in the Niger Delta versus the Gulf of Mexico

8th September 2010 By: In On Africa IOA

The April 2010 British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has caused global outrage, eliciting quick political, financial, legal and environmental action and visible results. The ruptured oil well has been sealed. Tony Hayward, BP's Chief Executive, has been replaced and a massive clean-up effort has ensured that environmental damages have been kept to a minimum. From the perspective of marginalised states, the BP oil spill has elicited cries of double standards in the oil industry. Indeed, the BP oil spill seems less significant in comparison to the over 2,400 oil spills involving foreign oil companies in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria in the last four years.(2)


This discussion paper questions the existence of global double standards in the oil industry. It reflects on the effects of the oil industry of global power relations and marginalisation in light of the contention that one rule applies for oil companies in the West and another rule applies for the rest. It also aims to highlight the pressing environmental and societal issues surrounding oil extraction in the Niger Delta.

The Gulf of Mexico


On 20 April 2010, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded, killing 11 employees and injuring many more. The explosion and subsequent unleashing of over 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the ocean off the coast of Louisiana in the United States (US) has been labelled as the "worst accidental marine oil spill in history."(3) The spill has strained relations between the United Kingdom (UK) and the US, and has caused the international community to question the operating standards of the oil industry.


Indeed, the US Justice Department has opened a criminal probe into the spill and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the US federal offshore regulator, is conducting hearings with regard to the industry's preparedness for oil spills and is expected to formulate further rules governing offshore drilling. Furthermore, an independent commission appointed by President Barack Obama is examining everything from the potential causes of the spill to the environmental impact of the chemicals used to disperse the oil in the Gulf. In addition, dozens of civil lawsuits have been filed along the Gulf Coast.(4) These are but a few of the responses that the BP oil spill has engendered and which have left no doubts that those responsible will be made to pay for their negligence.


The Niger Delta


The Niger Delta is situated in the southern region of Nigeria, which is characterised by its massive oil deposits. It is an area stretching over five coastal states and six internal ones and it is home to over 31 million impoverished villagers.(5) The Delta is made up of marshland, creeks, tributaries and lagoons which drain into the Atlantic at the Bight of Biafra. It contains the world's largest mangrove forest, as well as diverse plant and animal species, including many exotic and unique species.(6) Oil was first exported from the Niger Delta in 1958 and since then Nigeria has become Africa's largest oil producer and the world's sixth largest oil producer. Furthermore, the Niger Delta provides approximately 40% of all the crude oil imported by the US. The major oil companies operating in the Niger Delta include Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Total, ENI and Addax.(7)


Since 1958, between 9 and 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled into the Niger Delta. This is roughly triple the amount of oil that has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. In contrast, the total amount of money that has been spent by international oil companies and organisations on cleaning up the Delta is at least 13 times less than that being spent on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill - US$ 180 million versus US$ 2.35 billion.(8) As a result, the Niger Delta is now one of the most polluted places on earth. Specifically, "[l]arge purple slicks cover once fertile fields, and rivers are clogged with oil leaked decades ago. It has been called the ‘black tide': a stain of thick, gooey oil that has oozed over vast tracts of land and poisoned the air for millions of Africans. In some areas fish and birds have disappeared: the swamps are silent."(9) In light of the massive clean-up effort currently underway in the Gulf of Mexico, the festering pollution due to long-term, serious oil spills in the Niger Delta warrants an explanation.


One rule for the West and another for the rest?


One cannot help but consider why oil companies have not been held accountable for their negligence in the Niger Delta. Indeed, the fact that such extreme legal, political, financial and environmental action has been taken in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill raises some uncomfortable questions. Why oil companies get away with oil spills in the Niger Delta has everything to do with global power relationships, African marginalisation and the deeper social issues surrounding oil extraction in the Niger Delta.


In the first instance, it can be noted that oil companies have an extraordinary amount of power in the current global environment. Indeed, as purveyors of one of the world's scarcest and most valuable resources, they often exert the type of influence that is normally reserved for states. Oil companies acting with impunity is nothing new as Judith Kimmerling, a professor of law and policy at the City University of New York notes, "[s]pills, leaks and deliberate discharges are happening in oil fields all over the world and very few people seem to care."(10) Oil companies are out of control and they do act as though they are above the law. This type of behaviour is to a large extent facilitated by powerful states in the West whose thirst for oil has them turning a blind eye to the practices of oil companies in marginal zones of the world.


Blame cannot be solely placed on the powerful states of this world, however. In the marginal zones such as Nigeria, which is arguably one of the most corrupt states in existence, oil companies are given free reign as oil revenues contribute to propping up political regimes. In terms of power, even if Nigeria had the capacity (which it does not) to enforce better practices in the oil industry, it does not have the will to do so.


The Gulf oil spill though, has hit closer to home, forcing the US to assess oil industry practices that have until now been easier to ignore. The US, as one of the most powerful states in the world, has the capacity to challenge the practices of the oil industry and due to the oil spill on its doorstep, it now has the will to do so too. Inadvertently, the Gulf oil spill may have positive repercussions in the long run, resulting in better monitoring of oil companies and stricter legislation with regard to their operations on a global scale.


Secondly, whether the quick action taken in response to the Gulf oil spill is a reflection of global double standards is not clear cut. Ibeanu(11) notes that "[t]he shady modus operandi of oil companies and the incompetence and corruption of state officials, ensure[s] that neither [take] responsibility for the enormous environmental and social damages caused by crude oil production." Indeed, as noted above, corrupt relationships in marginal states such as Nigeria effectively enables oil industry negligence. Therefore, it is as much an issue of bad resource governance within states as it is an issue of double standards in the oil industry. The co-existence of bad governance, extreme corruption and conflict in resource rich marginal states throughout the world, is uncanny. Oil companies are easy scapegoats, as it is easier to blame the oil industry for double standards, than it is to find solutions for bad governance, corruption and conflict in marginalised states. The West has stronger systems of resource governance, less corruption and resource conflicts are nearly non-existent. As a result it may seem that there is another rule governing the operation of oil companies in the West in comparison to the rest, when this is not really the case.


Apart from world power relationships and marginalisation, another aspect which contributes to discrepancies in the oil industry is the deeper social issue in the Niger Delta. The Niger Delta is a hotbed of conflict, which is fuelled by the oil industry. Indeed, a central reason for conflict in the Niger Delta is the "dissatisfaction of oil-bearing communities with monetary compensation paid by oil companies and government for exploitation rights and ecological damage."(12) Additional factors contributing to the protracted conflict include, "neglect by government and oil companies, unemployment, military rule, the minority question, and a badly structured Nigerian federalism, especially as it concerns finances"(13) Therefore, environmental damage through gas flaring and oil spills by oil companies has called the livelihoods, and very existence of the 31 million residents of the Niger Delta into question.


The ways in which these grievances have been expressed, in the absence of other available means, is through sabotage of oil pipelines and other infrastructure and thievery of oil by local militant groups and communities.(14) These acts have also contributed to the environmental degradation of the region. Indeed, "[h]ow much of the spillage is due to oil thieves or to sabotage...and how much stems from poorly maintained and aging pipes, is a matter of fierce dispute among communities, environmentalists and the oil companies."(15) Oil spills in the Niger Delta can therefore be located within a complex nexus of causal relationships in which oil companies are but one important explanatory factor.



The above discussion has examined a number of different explanations for why there might seem to be different rules governing the operating standards and behaviour of international oil companies in the West compared to the rest of the world. The Gulf oil spill has caused a global uproar, not least from activists decrying the global double standards and hypocrisy characterising the oil industry in the Niger Delta, in comparison. In terms of the bare facts, the Gulf oil spill has seen an unprecedented global reaction - legally, financially, politically and environmentally. Decades of oil spills in the Niger Delta by international companies have, on the other hand, seen little or no action on any front to remedy the situation. This is indeed, a deplorable reality that, in the absence of further investigation, reveals gross double standards.


An analysis of the situation within the framework of global power relations, marginalisation and Nigeria's internal context facilitated a more nuanced understanding of the rules governing the oil industry. Specifically, in terms of power, the West has the willingness and ability to enforce accountability by oil companies, whereas the marginalised states of this world do not. Moreover, despotic regimes in marginalised states use oil revenues to prop up their Governments and buy support. Therefore, leaders have no interest in enforcing environmental standards and accountability from oil companies, as to do so might threaten their incumbency. Bad resource governance in Nigeria has also fostered a situation in which local communities have come to resent oil companies as destructors of their livelihoods, causing a conflict in which oil companies are the target of sabotage and thievery. Oil companies are at fault in the Niger Delta, having caused massive levels of pollution through gas flaring and oil spills and negligence. However, as shown above, placing sole blame on the oil companies is to over-simplify the situation.


The Gulf oil spill has been the catalyst for a review of oil industry practices and legislation governing their operations. This could result in the enforcement of higher levels of environmental accountability in the marginalised states of this world. However, in order to truly ensure that oil spills in the Niger Delta are addressed, the matter of resource governance and the willingness and ability of marginalised states to enforce the rules of the game is central.

Written by: Catherine Pringle (1)


(1) Contact Catherine Pringle through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Eyes on Africa Unit (
(2) ‘Correspondent's diary: An oily mess', The Economist, 25 June 2010,
(3) Russell Gold & Stephen Power, ‘As Pill Receded, Probes Advance', The Wall Street Journal, 07 August 2010,
(4) Ibid.
(5) Clarke, D. 2008. Crude Continent: The Struggle for Africa's Oil Prize. London: Profile Books, pp. 88.
(6) Ibeanu, O. 2000. Oiling the Friction: Environmental Conflict Management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Environmental Change & Security Project Report, 6, pp 20.
(7) Clarke, D. 2008. Crude Continent: The Struggle for Africa's Oil Prize. London: Profile Books, pp. 88.
(8) ‘Oil fouling the Niger Delta dwarfs the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico', Yale Environment 360, 08 July 2010,
(9) Julia Baird, ‘Oil's Shame in Africa: In Nigeria, spills are weekly events', Newsweek, 18 July 2010,
(10) John Vidal, ‘Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it', The Guardian, 30 May 2010,
(11) Ibeanu, O. 2000. Oiling the Friction: Environmental Conflict Management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Environmental Change & Security Project Report, 6, pp 20.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Adam Nossiter, ‘Far From Gulf, a Spill Scourge 5 Decades Old', The New York Times, 17 June 2010,
(15) Ibid.