In a mangrove forest at the edge of a Niger Delta swamp, a film of oil shimmers in rainbow colors for hundreds of meters around Royal Dutch Shell’s Nembe creek pipeline.
The cause of this latest environmental catastrophe, Shell says, was an unprecedented level of oil theft targeting a pipeline pumping 150,000 barrels of oil a day to the Atlantic coast, writes Reuters.
Nembe is one of the most important production routes for the nation, but it is also a frequent target for criminal gangs who tap into pipelines and steal crude for sale to world markets or local refineries.
Last week Shell declared a force majeure on the Bonny Light crude oil grade and threatened to shut down the pipeline completely after thieves struck last month.
The impact on the environment of such so-called “bunkering” practices – and on the largely subsistence fishing communities who live around the pipelines in the creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta – is devastating. Decades of oil spills from a combination of theft and poor environmental management by oil majors has ravaged this fragile wetlands environment.
“The way of life I knew as a child, when we used to eat fresh fish straight out of the water, is all gone”, said David Kosipre, who used to be a fisherman until all the fish died but who now uses his fishing boat to run a ferry service.
“These oil people have made a shortage of fish. We have to buy it frozen, whereas we used to get it fresh”, he said, as his boat cut through a film of thick sludge coating the water.
Reuters was not permitted to gain access to the part of the Nembe pipeline that Shell says has been targeted by thieves, but the ruinous effects of spilled oil were evident: mangroves starting to die and go black, dead fish washing up on shore.
A military boat approached, and Kosipre darted to raise his hands and show he was not armed.
“If you’re not careful, they can arrest you”, he said. “Yet they’re the biggest oil thieves of all”, he added, voicing the widely held view that some in military, as well as some senior politicians in Niger Delta, are complicit in much of the theft.
The Federal Government reacted angrily to Shell’s suggestion last week that current levels of oil theft were worse than ever, accusing the company of failing to plug pre-existing leaks.