Oil and gas companies, led by Shell, Eni, Chevron, Total and ExxonMobil, spilled 110,000 barrels of oil into Nigeria’s Bayelsa state over the past 50 years, a new report says. The report, released by a commission of experts set up by the state government in 2019, also reported finding levels of heavy metals associated with oil production in human tissue in the state that are far higher than safe levels. The commission, the first of its kind to be directly appointed by a state government in Nigeria’s notoriously polluted Niger Delta, called for Shell and others to set up a $12 billion cleanup fund to address the environmental and health impacts of the oil industry in Bayelsa.
Bayelsa state lies on Nigeria’s coastline and once included parts of Africa’s largest mangrove forest. Its mangroves, coastal barrier islands and freshwater and lowland rainforests are home to a wide variety of wildlife, including threatened red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus epieni). Bayelsa was also once home to robust populations of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti) and pygmy hippos (Choeropsis liberiensis), but these have now all but vanished.
Long years of exploitation of the area’s resources by transnational companies, beginning with palm oil for the Royal Niger Company in the 17th century and continuing into the present with unregulated logging and, since the late 1950s, the petroleum industry, have taken a terrible toll on the environment and fishing and farming communities of the delta.
According to official Nigerian government data cited in the report, at least 234 oil spills happen every year in the small state, which covers just 3,500 square kilometers (1,350 square miles). Between 2006 and 2020, at least 110,000 barrels of oil were spilled into its rivers, swamps, and forests — 90% of which came from facilities owned by just five oil companies: Shell, Eni, Chevron, Total and ExxonMobil.
“For people living in Bayelsa, the air they breathe, the water they drink, the fish that they rely on, and the lands that they farm are all thick with oil,” said Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou, a program manager at the UK think tank, the Overseas Development Institute and chair of the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission’s expert working group.
As dramatic as the figures are, the commission says they’re almost certainly an underestimate. Most statistics on oil spills in the Niger Delta come from the Nigerian Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), an arm of the federal government. But the agency is reliant on oil companies themselves to transport inspectors to remote areas where oil spills take place, and their figures are as much as three times lower than the number of lost barrels recorded by other parts of the Nigerian government that are responsible for monitoring production.
“There’s a whole political economy around how spills are identified, who designates them as oil company fault or third-party sabotage, and the consequences of that,” Nwajiaku-Dahou said. “All of that means there’s a tendency to underestimate. And it’s not just a tendency, it’s a kind of deliberate skewing of the way we describe and ascertain spills that’s built into the system.”
In one eye-opening estimate, the report said that as much as 10-15 times the amount of oil lost in the Exxon Valdez disaster may have been spilled in Bayelsa over 50 years of production.
The commission also worked with forensic scientists and medical researchers to collect and test samples of water, sediments, plants and animals in the food chain in 17 sites in Bayelsa. They found that surface water in the test sites showed concentrations of “total petroleum hydrocarbons” — chemical compounds present in crude oil that are associated with health risks — that were at least 300 times the maximum safe value in every sample they took. At one site, the concentration was more than 700,000 times the safe limit.
Researchers also took blood and tissue samples from 1,600 people living across the state. According to their analysis, the amount of dangerous heavy metals like lead and cadmium from oil pollution was as much as six times higher in people living in Bayelsa than is safe. Both metals have been associated with higher cancer risks, and can cause birth defects, neurological damage and other serious health risks.
In testimonies published in the report, Bayelsa residents described ongoing health issues, poisoned waterways and a byzantine system of legal and corporate requirements for assessing spills that made it nearly impossible for them to get compensation for damages.
“I live within 500 meters [0.3 miles] of a multibillion-dollar oil facility, flaring toxic gas into the air every day,” said Bubaraye Dakolo, traditional ruler of the Ekpetiama Kingdom and chair of the Bayelsa State Council of Chiefs. “I am a traditional ruler in Bayelsa state. The enormous suffering caused by oil pollution in my kingdom pokes me, chokes me, and stares me in the face every day.”
Representatives of the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission told Mongabay that while the extent of the damage in the region has been well-known for decades, they hope the official stamp of a local government will help spur action.
“It’s important that the Bayelsa state government commissioned this, because it’s a signal to Nigeria and the federal government — but also the world at large — of the seriousness of the accumulated crises, what our report refers to as an ecocide,” said Michael C. Watts, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the lead researchers. “We’re at a tipping point that really needs massive international and national resources and attention.”
The commission was critical of Nigeria’s regulatory and monitoring framework, including the recently passed Petroleum Industry Act, saying it failed to grant adequate powers to environmental agencies, instead placing oversight in the hands of government bodies more closely tied to the business side of the oil industry.
Environmental activists in the region said the report’s findings tracked what they’d seen during decades of oil production in Bayelsa.
“Bayelsa state has been pronounced by [NOSDRA] as the most polluted in Nigeria, and there has never been any proper cleanup,” said Alagoa Morris of the Bayelsa-based Niger Delta Resource Centre.
The report comes amid an accelerating strategy by companies like Shell to withdraw from the Niger Delta, moving their operations to deep-water wells offshore in an attempt to meet their climate commitments and avoid bad publicity. Shell is facing lawsuits in multiple countries over the impact of its operations in Nigeria, and activists in Bayelsa say they worry that along with the other oil majors, it will leave the region without cleaning up the mess it left behind.
“Shell should do the proper cleanup before they sell and divest, and the same goes for any company operating in the Niger Delta and Bayelsa state,” Morris said.
The commission wants Shell, Eni and the other oil majors to capitalize a $12 billion fund that they say is necessary to address the damage done to ecosystems and communities in Bayelsa over the past five decades. In 2022, Shell made a record $40 billion in profits, and Eni posted its own record with $14 billion.
A chunk of those profits, the report’s authors say, should be directed to Bayelsa, which has suffered not just under the oil and gas regime of the past 75 years, but under extractive pressures for centuries.
“This is the area where in the 16th century you had slaves taken in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, then the mass palm oil trade replaced slavery, and now petroleum and oil and gas extraction has followed the same path, essentially destroying not just the environment, but the source of life and livelihood for most people in the Delta,” Nwajiaku-Dahou said.
“It’s not just a tragedy, it’s criminal.”