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Letter from Nigeria

According to the author, oil pipelines with low tech-or no tech-surveillance technologies are another example of digital divide.

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.

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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