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When the underground oil pipeline burst in this lush village in the Niger River delta last August the workers at Shell, whose subsidiary pumps the crude, were on strike. Two weeks passed before the spill was halted. Many thousands of barrels worth poured into the lowlands, creeks, and ponds that dominate the landscape.

Then the fires came. The oil burned for weeks, speeding the cleanup but making the air dark and difficult. Wildlife vanished. The monkeys ran deep into the bush, and the crocodiles fled from the waters. A rabbit breeder in the village watched his herd expire. “Shell killed my rabbit farm,” he says.

A local fisherman named Prince Eleru is one of many who has since set his nets aside. The fish are gone. As a gesture of good will, Shell has temporarily added Prince to its local security force. He earns fifty dollars a month, a significant sum here. Along with seven or eight local men, he patrols the pipelines, looking for seeping oil-or saboteurs.

That’s about as high tech as international oil corporate operations get in Nigeria: human eyes looking for oil leaks. In an industry in which hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in developing technologies to discover oil under the ground, visual inspection remains the state of the art in monitoring it in the pipelines above ground in this African country.

And the technology does exist. There are many oil pipeline surveillance technologies currently on the market, in particular, a host of fiber optic sensors that detect stress in the pipelines and drilling equipment through subtle shifts in the optic wavelength. Researches at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX have developed harmonic sensors that can be placed inside of pipes via the flow of oil, then attach themselves to the interior to measure outside force. And over the last two years ChevronTexaco has invested tens of millions of dollars in startup companies that design pipeline sensor networks.    

Oil pipeline operators in the U.S., of course, have a large incentive to spot or prevent leaks quickly. Spills can leave them subject to costly lawsuits. But in Nigeria, companies like Shell and ChevronTexaco aren’t vulnerable to such potential payouts. Here, the courts and government rarely order payments to citizens damaged by oil spills-or even order companies to clean up after themselves. Because of the limited penalties for pipeline leaks, foreign oil companies in Nigeria stick with the low-tech, old-fashion method of human surveillance.  

But even the simplest technologies can’t seem to prevent the simplest problems-like theft. In Nigeria, where Shell is the largest operator, 50,000 barrels of oil go missing from its pipeline network every day (out of a daily production of 600,000 barrels). Maart Wink, the Dutch national in charge of Shell’s oil production in Nigeria, estimates that theft accounts for 85 percent of the missing crude.

Two years ago, a disgruntled resident of Ughelli, a town in the heart of the oil-rich delta, removed a central piece of an abandoned pumping station, causing a huge spill that polluted surrounding wetlands. While Shell insists the station was guarded, the guards were curiously absent during the attack, “probably paid off to disappear by the attacker,” says Bobo Brown, a Shell spokesman.

Not only did Shell fail to have a security camera at the site, or an alarm of any sort, the company had never installed a device to automatically shut down the pump in the event of serious tampering. Brown says an automated shutoff valve wasn’t warranted since the manner of sabotage was, “so unusual, it was like September 11.” Yet he also concedes the company can do more to both prevent spills and clean them up when they occur.

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