A Tale of Two Deltas

While the volume of the oil spill in the Gulf is still considerably smaller, the efforts to clean it up have certainly eclipsed any previous efforts to clean up any oil spill in the Niger Delta.

July 1, 2010
Jonathan Chan, Brian O'Donnell, Jillian Feirson

As the Deepwater Horizon spill continues in the Gulf of Mexico, attention has dramatically shifted to look at the direct environmental cost of drilling for oil all around the world. The fact is that oil spills happen more often than governments or oil companies would like to admit, and often there is no one to take responsibility—especially if US coastlines are out of range. A number of journalists and bloggers have been drawing attention to these lesser-known oil spills such as those in the Niger Delta. Like the Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coast, the Niger Delta is a valuable natural resource, providing livelihoods in agriculture and fishing. However, the area is also plagued by large oil spills that threaten those rich natural resources and the very livelihood of those who depend on them. The continuing environmental crisis, along with poor governance and a volatile security situation, has led UNDP to conclude in 2006 that the region’s development has stagnated for the last two decades—despite its immense hydrocarbon wealth.

Unlike the Deepwater Horizon spill, the continuing crisis in the Niger Delta is happening across vast stretches of wetlands and creeks where millions of Nigerians live. No submarines are needed to see what’s happening in these National Geographic and New York Times slideshows. As 24 hour coverage continues in the Gulf of Mexico, Nigerian activists like Ken Tebe pointed out to CNN that there has been “little or no concern even from the U.S. government”, despite the fact that Nigeria is the fifth largest exporter of oil to the U.S.

As data people, we wanted to look at data behind the stories and pictures of the painful disconnect between North and South at this intersection of extraction, environment, and poverty. Is the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon Spill similar to that of the Niger Delta crisis? How has the international aid community responded to the Niger Delta, and how does that compare to efforts in the Gulf of Mexico? More specifically, how have the large oil consuming nations responded?

First, we compared the total volume of oil that’s been spilled in the two regions. In both cases, estimates have been varying widely, and so the best we can do is establish upper and lower bounds. For the Deepwater Horizon Spill, we used the daily flow rate estimates from the Flow Rate Technical Group, both from their June 10th assessment, and the revised figures reported after the riser was cut and the flow increased. For the Niger Delta, we used the UNDP Human Development Report’s estimate (115,000 barrels/year) as the lower limit, and the estimate of government and independent experts (200,000 barrels/year) as the upper limit.

As you can see, the Deepwater Horizon spill has had tremendous impact for a single incident, but it hasn’t yet matched the cumulative effect of 5 decades of continual spills and leakages. Based on the current flow rates, the spill volume will be comparable to the situation in the Niger Delta sometime between August 9th, 2010 and February 19th, 2011. While the volume of the oil spill in the Gulf is still considerably smaller, the efforts to clean it up have certainly eclipsed any previous efforts to clean up any oil spill in the Niger Delta.

On June 25th, BP reported that “the cost of the spill response, containment, relief well drilling, grants to the Gulf states, claims paid, and federal costs” has amounted to $2.35 billion USD. Data is unavailable on the response by the Nigerian government and oil companies to the Niger Delta crisis, but using AidData, we’re able to do some back of the napkin analysis of foreign aid flows toward environmental protection and spill cleanup in Nigeria.

Using keyword searches and the purpose codes assigned to individual development projects, we identified and aggregated projects that developed the oil industry or contributed to cleanup and environmental protection. Since the project descriptions donors provided can be somewhat ambiguous, we excluded a number of large ombudsman projects that mentioned oil development as one of many activities, and we and included any project that could potentially benefit or build capacity for spill response efforts. This methodology could underestimate commitments for oil and gas development, and overestimate commitments towards spill response. In the case of World Bank projects, we accounted for their practice of mainstreaming environmental spending into infrastructure projects that are likely to have negative environmental impacts. Other AidData researchers found that in environmentally risky ventures, like oil and gas exploitation, about 18% of a World Bank’s project budget is spent on environmental protection, and we apply this percentage to IDA and IBRD projects.

Here we compare the aggregate amounts to the cost of the Deepwater Horizon response.

As you can see, despite the markup from mainstreamed WB environmental spending, the spending mismatch between petroleum and the environment is huge. The amount committed by the international community towards cleanup and environmental protection in Nigeria is 6 times smaller than what’s spent on the oil industry, and over 13 times smaller than the cost of the Deepwater Horizon cleanup, which is only going to rise. Again, since we’re probably overestimating spending on cleanup efforts and underestimating spending on the oil industry, this discrepancy is probably even higher.

Here you can see the breakdown of these sectors by donor:

Ken Tebe is right. It looks like the US government isn’t that concerned. Of the nearly 5 billion dollars of aid that the US has committed to Nigeria over the past 40 years, less than a million has gone towards oil spill response efforts. But not all signs point to disaster--there may be a good environmental outcome for the Niger Delta from the hype created by the Gulf oil spill: the governor of the Delta State recently called for a criminal investigation of oil companies operating in the Delta, citing developments in the US response to the Deepwater Horizon Spill as inspiration. We’ve seen how poor regulation and weak response capacity can exacerbate the impact of oil catastrophes in the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps now that we’ve learned this lesson at home, we’ll finally be willing to help those who deal with these realities every day, no matter where they are.

This post was a collaborative effort by myself and two of our William and Mary research assistants, Jillian Feirson ('11) and Brian O'Donnell ('11). You can view the project lists and underlying data we used for this post here.