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Critics of oil companies have a simple explanation for why both old and new technology that can prevent spills and improve cleanups rarely gets used here. “Because we are black and poor, the oil companies think they can come and devastate our environment,” says Annkio Opurum-Briggs, president of Agape, an environmental rights advocate in Port Harcourt, the capital of Nigeria’s oil industry.

On the rainy October day when I visited Ogbodo, I trekked for miles through despoiled river beds and shriveled groves of plantains and coconut trees. Although Annkio protested time and again about the extent of the pollution from the Shell spill, she couldn’t appeal to any evidence beyond what could be seen. There is simply no money to conduct sophisticated tests. Additionally, “The experts in the technologies required all work for the oil companies,” Annkio says.

As a result, the people of Ogbodo, and their allies in the big city of Port Harcourt, have never taken soil and water samples from the despoiled areas. They have never tagged animals with sensors in order to chart disrupted habitats. They have never done a computer simulation to determine whether the canal that Shell built, in order to quicken the removal of oil from the river running through the village, has permanently changed the flow of the river, which was once seasonal but now flows year-round, thereby erasing cyclical ponds critical to spawning fish.

Annkio says the people of the Niger delta depend on foreign environmentalists to fund scientific inquiries, but few come because of the hazards of working in a region scarred by violent strife. The government of Nigeria, meanwhile, has no laboratories of its own where the extent of oil pollution to water, land, wildlife, and trees can be studied. The government of Nigeria, incredibly, has no labs that can test for oil pollution, period. At a time when satellite data is available to judge the extent of pollution in hard-to-reach places, the government of Nigeria does no analysis of available geo-coded data. It leaves the entire show to the oil companies.

These companies, meanwhile, do not routinely share their technological tools with outsiders. Until the late 1990s, Shell, Chevron, Elf, and Agip-the big four in Nigeria-typically didn’t conduct an environmental impact report prior to drilling or laying pipelines. Today, even after an oil spill that results from a company failure, no public reports are issued on the extent of the environmental damage or the possible untried remedies. In response, the Nigerian government two years ago created a new agency whose environmental unit intends to build a lab that can do the sorts of technical analyses that will give environmental advocates more precise information about the effects of oil drilling on land and water.

“We don’t want to be guided by the oil companies on environmental matters,” says Telema Princewell, director of environmental protection at the Niger Delta Development Commission. “We want to independently evaluate claims.”

The continued failure by oil companies to make use of available technologies reflects the way in which technological applications emerge in response to political and economic pressures. That children in America possess toys with more machine intelligence than an oil pipeline in Nigeria says much about the contradictory manner in which market forces value technologies and they benefits they do (and do not) bring. How can oil companies and environmentalists alike change the market dynamics of pipeline safety and the cleanup of oil spills in forgotten places like Nigeria? That is a question whose answer awaits the contributions of both engineers and business executives. 

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