Reuters reports that Shell said that the cause of this latest environmental catastrophe was an unprecedented level of oil theft targeting a pipeline pumping 150,000 barrels of oil a day to the Atlantic Coast.
Nembe is one of the most important production routes for Africa’s top energy producer, but it is also a frequent target for criminal gangs who tap into pipelines and steal crude for sale to world markets or local refineries.
Last week, Shell declared a force majeure on the Nigerian Bonny Light crude oil grade and threatened to shut down the pipeline completely after thieves struck last month.
The impact on the environment of such so-called bunkering practices – and on the largely subsistence fishing communities who live around the pipelines in the creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta – is devastating.
Decades of oil spills from a combination of theft and poor environmental management by oil majors have ravaged this fragile wetlands environment.
“The way of life I knew as a child, when we used to eat fresh fish straight out of the water, is all gone,” David Kosipre, who used to be a fisherman until all the fish died but who now uses his fishing boat to run a ferry service, said.
“These oil people have made a shortage of fish. We have to buy it frozen, whereas we used to get it fresh,” he said, as his boat cut through a film of thick sludge coating the water.
The ruinous effects of spilt oil were evident; the mangroves starting to die and go black, and dead fish washing up on shore.
As a military boat approached, Kosipre darted to raise his hands and show he was not armed.
“If you’re not careful, they can arrest you,” he said.
“Yet, they’re the biggest oil thieves of all,” he added, voicing the widely-held view that some in Nigeria’s military, as well as some senior politicians in the delta, are complicit in much of the theft.
Nigerian authorities reacted angrily to Shell’s suggestion last week that current levels of oil theft were worse than ever, accusing the company of failing to plug pre-existing leaks.
A spokesman for the military Joint Task Force (JTF) in the Niger Delta, Lieutenant-Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu, said that enforcement successes since the launch of a campaign (Operation Pulo Shield) against oil thieves last year have cut bunkering.
“There is no surge in oil theft in the Niger Delta, rather it is abating,” he said at his office.
He went on: “It was an outrageous outburst by SPDC (Shell Petroleum Development Corporation). We discovered breaches on SPDC pipelines over three months ago, and they have not gone to clamp those breaches down.”
Security operatives stormed a market in one of the delta’s main cities and capital of Bayelsa State, Yenagoa, last Thursday to destroy a depot of illegally-refined products.
They broke onto six makeshift wooden warehouses and pulled out 100 surface tanks and about as many drums containing diesel.
Nwachukwu said that operations had curbed theft.
“Government security agencies have been deployed to protect that (Nembe) line,” SPDC boss Mutiu Sunmonu said in the United States (US).
He added: “But it will appear from what is happening recently that these measures are just not sufficient.”
Meanwhile, the oil spills that blight the lives of millions in the delta show little sign of abating or being cleaned up.
“I barely feed my two children. They used to be in school, but there are no fish to sell, so I had to pull them out,” said Douye Enegete, anger visible in his face.
“Oil is a curse on us,” he added.
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