Dirty Oil: How it Pollutes Politics and Subverts Human Rights

An African Petroleum Tale: Nigeria

In the early 1990s, I lived in Lagos, Nigeria. It is an intensely crowded city, and more people live on the street or in cardboard huts than in apartments or homes. Traffic is gridlocked 24-7. Vendors squat alongside every roadway selling bananas and rice, large grilled rodents euphemistically called "bushmeat," and tiny packets of Chiclets gum. Parallel to the roads are open sewers, covered only by wood or steel planks that act as driveways into the ubiquitous walled compounds. Poverty is the norm in a country where a person with clean clothes and a working bicycle is middle class.

Wanle Akinboboye is a proud, regal man, prematurely balding at 38, the owner of an eclectic recreational services business, married with two kids. His gaze is at once piercing and inquisitive, but boyish and vaguely gullible. Perhaps that last quality is just optimism in a nation that breeds little of it, but needs a lot. Wanle is intensely proud of his country and crusades to bring the Olympics to Nigeria one day, making it the first African nation to host the games, he hopes.

So that I could truly understand the country and its people, Wanle took me neither to a wildlife preserve nor a tourist bazaar but to the funeral of his friend’s mother. Vast buffets of exotic meat and drink were laid out, and I tasted my first roasted dog. World-famous musician King Sunny Ade and his band played from 10 at night until after sunrise without a break. We danced on the outdoor stage with the musicians, honoring them by sticking dollar bills to the sweat on their foreheads. Each guest brought gifts of food and drink. Wanle sent a refrigerated trailer of meat and water.

While the wealthy few live in comfort with satellite dishes and cell phones, even mourning in lavish style, the majority of Nigerians live in unimaginable, hopeless poverty. Graft is rampant, but nowhere more so than in government, especially at the highest levels. Various presidents and military dictators have made themselves rich beyond belief, mostly via profits skimmed directly or indirectly from Nigeria’s incredible oil riches.

Wanle showed me the Niger River delta and the post-apocalyptic industrial city of Port Harcourt, site of Nigeria’s main oil production facilities. All of Nigeria is hot. In summer, it is also humid and intense with tropical decay. In winter, it is hot and dry, covered with red dust from the Harmattan winds that blow in from the Sahara to the north, leaving fine particles on your desk in which you can write your name, wipe it clean and within an hour scribble again. But in Port Harcourt, as one local resident describes it, the air simply attacks your eyes, your nose, your lungs.

"Open flares of natural gas
are burned off daily, emitting a pungent smell that tickles the nostrils," the man from Port Harcourt said. "New galvanized rooftops are caked with rust within two years, thanks to acid rain. And miles of brown, rusting oil pipelines that dot the landscape often leak or burst, sending streams of sticky black liquid into the fields."

Not far from Port Harcourt, an oil pipeline burst in the city of Warri in October 1998. Impoverished local villagers rushed to the growing pool of oil to collect what they could in buckets, hoping to use it for cooking fuel or to sell for cash. Within minutes, thousands had waded ankle deep in a sea of oil that had grown to the size of a football field. Celebration was in the air, the joy of an unexpected windfall, probably similar to my naive joy as a child when a blizzard canceled school for the day.

"It was like a marketplace," recalls Chief John Ogude, a local tribal elder who rejoiced at the unexpected wealth that had fallen into the laps of his friends and neighbors. In the end, though, there is no joy in oil.

Terry Tamminen

"The vast pool of oil
accidentally ignited," Chief Ogude said stoically. Within minutes his tribe literally went up in flames. Five hundred people died instantly in the inferno, and 200 more died of their injuries within days. Where celebrating tribespeople had once danced for joy over their windfall, there now danced fearsome flames more than 60 feet high, consuming man, beast, land and soul.

Nor was this an isolated incident. Nigerians have filed suit against ChevronTexaco, alleging the oil giant’s responsibility for deaths of still other hapless villagers, this time at the hands of armed thugs, who descended on the simple tribesmen protesting against oil exploitation in their country. ChevronTexaco doesn’t deny that it hired the Nigerian military and police officers responsible for the killings, but it claims that it did not authorize the use of deadly force. The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in late 2006, and a class-action lawsuit will be heard in 2007. Chevron should take note of the fate of its competitor, Shell, who lost a court battle in Nigeria in early 2006 over pollution on the Niger River delta and must pay local tribes $1.5 billion. Shell has indicated that it will appeal, so it may be a long time, if ever, before the villagers see a penny.

In Lagos, I was struck by a popular billboard for Benson and Hedges cigarettes. The ad simply showed the hand of a white man, extended down from the top right corner of the billboard, reaching toward the hand of a black man, reaching up from the lower left. The white man’s arm displayed an impeccable suit and a monogrammed shirt with expensive cuff links. The black man’s clothing was more modest business attire. The white man was handing the black man a package of cigarettes. It could just as easily have been a quart of oil or an SUV.

I wonder now if Wanle showed me the destruction wrought by petroleum on his homeland because he hoped that I, as a consumer of the same commodity that had so impoverished his people, would accept a modicum of responsibility. Or, did he do it out of a naéve honesty, seeking to portray his country as it is, the astonishing beauty and cultural diversity held up against the bleak waste brought on by greed? When I lived there in the early 1990s, gasoline sold for 15 cents a gallon, a subsidy that officials consider "payment" to the masses for allowing the rape of a nation. In the years since, Nigeria has earned more than $300 billion in oil revenues, but its per capita income is less than $1 a day, still one of the lowest of any nation.

An Asian Petroleum Tale: Kazakhstan

Nigeria, Colombia and Ecuador: each of these countries was thought to be the next savior of the industrialized world, offering plentiful, cheap oil teased from the planet by a willing, inexpensive, local labor force. Now some see the lands of the former Soviet Union as the next great petroleum hope, containing vast untapped reserves that will guarantee our business-as-usual consumption for several more decades. The Kazakh region is preeminent among the latest oil-fired dreams.

In fact, the most hopeful estimate of Kazakh oil production is three million barrels a day, or 10 percent of U.S. daily use by the time such results might be manifest. What have we done to secure such a sultan’s ransom? For starters, the United States propped up Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, a notorious strongman accused of silencing domestic opponents and rigging elections.

"Nazarbayev came to realize that there would be no serious consequences for his antidemocratic actions," said Martha Brill Olcott, a consultant t

o ChevronTexaco and an expert on regional affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Like most leaders of third world republics with oil, Nazarbayev has used his U.S. support to feed at the petroleum trough. His daughter owns the construction company that has built much of the housing and office space for oil workers. His other daughter controls the Kazakh national media. U.S. consultants, with close ties to high government officials, have been indicted for bribing Nazarbayev and other Kazakh officials on behalf of their oil company clients.

"In my experience, there was an unprecedented level of input [in local politics] from oil companies," notes Robert Baer, a former CIA analyst and author of Sleeping with the Devil. "We considered it to be in our national interest for oil companies to invest there, and we didn’t want anything to get in the way."

In March 2002, the Heritage Foundation, known for its conservative views, ranked Kazakhstan 131st of 161 countries in terms of its commitment to free-market capitalism, calling the country "mostly unfree." Yet two months later, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, after heavy lobbying from the U.S. oil industry, dropped Kazakhstan from the U.S. list of "nonmarket economies." This change was an important distinction because having that label would impose tougher sanctions in the event of trade disputes.

The U.S. State Department issued a scathing report in 2003 on human rights and democratic conditions in Kazakhstan, but after a month of intense lobbying from oil companies, the Bush administration certified that the Nazarbayev regime had shown "significant improvement" in human rights and sent $51 million taxpayer dollars in U.S. aid that year to Kazakhstan. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) strongly disagreed with the release of aid money, but they eventually lost to the influence of six highly paid lobbyists employed by ChevronTexaco to win the funding.

In Sleeping with the Devil, Baer argues that oil led to our support for oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, which in turn led to the hatred of the United States that spawned the September 11, 2001, attacks. The 9/11 hijackers, he shows, were given special treatment for a type of visa that is generally afforded to Saudis, but no one else on Earth, all to facilitate the trade of oil.

Ironically, on September 11, 2001, I was in an Exxon station in Santa Monica, pumping $1.25 a gallon gasoline into my car, when I heard over the radio that the second plane had hit the World Trade Center. As the source of funding for the hijackers emerged in the following months, I thought about buying a car powered by batteries or compressed natural gas. On the second anniversary of that attack, though, I was back in the same Exxon station at exactly the same hour, filling the gasoline tank at $2.40 a gallon and listening to 9/11 memorials on the car radio.

If my friends in Nigeria and South America were trying to tell me something about the true price of our own addiction to oil, the cure has been too slow in coming, both for their countrymen and mine. Many costs of our oil dependence are easily quantifiable, but wars, erosion of our humanity and political integrity, a changing climate and destruction of native civilizations that have survived in peace with the planet for untold millennia are costs that cannot fully be measured, especially if we refuse to confront them, if we refuse to see beyond the glitter of the false gold.

How did we come to this place? How could we have given up so much for so little in return? That false gold buys conspiracies, deceptions, and frauds that have kept us in the dark for decades, covered in oil. It is that false gold that has corrupted our political leaders, our corporate leaders, and many of us who consume petroleum products and fail to demand something better.

From "All that Glitters," chapter 4 in Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction by Terry Tamminen, recently published by Island Press and reprinted with permission. Terry Tamminen is former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and current Special Advisor to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

CONTACTS: Island Press page: www.islandpress.org/books/detail.html/SKU/1-59726-101-7; Lives Per Gallon www.livespergallon.org