Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth Netherlands have expressed doubts about the United Nations' ability or willingness to conduct an independent assessment of widespread oil spills in the Niger Delta.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is conducting a research project on the environmental impact of at least 300 sites that were contaminated in Ogoniland, which is part of the oil-rich region. There is no consensus on the causes of these spills. Oil companies say they are mainly the result of theft and sabotage, while environmental organisations point their fingers at negligent oil giants such as Shell, which started oil exploration in the Niger Delta in the 1950’s.

“When UNEP went to the Niger Delta, our logical assumption was that they would do an unbiased survey and produce an unbiased report”, Akinbode Oluwafemi, of the Environmental Rights Action told Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

Figures by oil companies
But since the publication of an article in the British newspaper The Guardian earlier this week, the activists' hopes have been dashed. In the article, the head of the UNEP team investigating the spills quotes figures provided by Shell and supported by the Nigerian government that link 90 percent of oil pollution in Ogoniland to theft and sabotage. Geert Ritsema, a spokesman for Milieu Defensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth, told RNW that his organisation now had “serious doubts about the credibility of the investigation because it is based entirely on figures provided by oil companies.” Shell has even higher figures; in 2009, according to spokesman AndreRomeijn, 98% of the volume of the oil spills in the entire Niger Delta were the result of “sabotage, theft and vandalism”.

The newspaper article quotes the head of the UNEP project in Ogoniland, Mike Cowing, saying that his organisation had witnessed very large scale theft, so-called “bunkering” operations. “I am being seen to be siding with the oil companies, but I am not,” he said.

Financed by Shell
UNEP’s credibility is further eroded, environmentalists say, by the fact that the UN project is entirely financed by Shell Nigeria. UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall told RNW that “we have never hidden the fact that Shell Nigeria is putting money in the investigation”. This, in his view, will not prevent UNEP from coming up with an independent report, early next year. For Akinbode Oluwafemi, this amount is just “another investment of 10 million [by Shell] in order to present themselves as a good corporate citizen to the global community. That will not work with the people of the Niger Delta.”

Sunny Ofehe, a Nigerian activist based in The Netherlands, says the news might give Shell “a moment of respite”, and welcome support to their claim that the majority of oil spills are caused by sabotage.

The UNEP survey is taking place in Ogoniland, only one small part of the oil rich Niger Delta. Shell suspended its oil production there for security reasons in 1993. Ogoniland, therefore is “a-typical” for Shell’s activities in the Delta, Shell spokesman André Romeijn said. Environmentalists point out that the damage has been done and that Shell’s infrastructure and a major pipeline transporting oil remains in the area.

“What if a criminal that killed or robbed somebody a year ago would just come and say “ I don’t kill anymore so I should not be liable for things that have been committed? This is utter nonsense, “ Mr. Oluwafemi said.

Unholy alliance
According to the group Environmental Rights Action, there are around 1000 oil spills a year in the Niger Delta. The government of Nigeria, whom Mr. Oluwafemi says is “working in cahoots with the oil industry”, claims there are only 300. “There is this unholy alliance between the regulatory authorities and the oil corporations .”

The leaked information following a UNEP briefing suggested that Shell will be “exonerated for oil pollution in the Niger Delta.” However, under Nigerian legislation, oil companies are expected to clean up oil spills, regardless of where the responsibility lies. Shell says it has cleaned up 175 spills per year since 2005, and that cleaning up activities were taking place on 439 sites.

While the battle of the figures and the pointing of fingers linger on, local populations continue to ask how long they will have to wait for clean water and a clean environment.

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