When BP and its drilling partners caused the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the US government demanded that BP finance the cleanup, compensate those who suffered damages and pay criminal penalties for the violations that led to the disaster.
BP has already committed more than US$20 billion in remediation and penalties. Based on a settlement last week, BP will now pay the largest criminal penalty in US history — US$4.5 billion.
The same standards for environmental cleanup need to be applied to global companies operating in poorer countries, where their power has typically been so great relative to that of governments that many act with impunity, wreaking havoc on the environment with little or no accountability.
As we enter a new era of sustainable development, impunity must turn to responsibility. Polluters must pay, whether in rich or poor countries. Major companies need to accept responsibility for their actions.
Nigeria has been “exhibit A” of corporate environmental impunity. For decades, major oil companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron, have been producing oil in the Niger Delta, an ecologically fragile environment of freshwater swamp forests, mangroves, lowland rain forests and coastal barrier islands. This rich habitat supports remarkable biodiversity — or did before the oil companies got there — and more than 30 million local inhabitants, who depend on the local ecosystems for their health and livelihoods.
Twenty years ago, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classified the Niger Delta as a region of high biodiversity of marine and coastal flora and fauna — tree species, fish, birds and mammals, among other forms of life — and therefore rated it as a very high priority for conservation. Yet it also noted that the region’s biodiversity was under massive threat, with little or no protection.
The global companies operating in the delta have spilled oil and flared natural gas for decades, without regard for the environment and the communities impoverished and poisoned by their actions. One estimate puts the cumulative spills over the past 50 years at approximately 10 million barrels — twice the size of the BP spill.
The data are uncertain. There have been many thousands of spills during this period — often poorly documented and their magnitude hidden, or simply unmeasured by either the companies or the government. Indeed, just as BP was being hit with new criminal penalties, ExxonMobil announced yet another pipeline leak in the Niger Delta.
The environmental destruction of the delta is part of a larger saga — corrupt companies operating hand in hand with corrupt government officials. The companies routinely bribe officials to gain oil leases, lie about output, evade taxes and dodge responsibility for the environmental damage that they cause. Nigerian officials have become fabulously wealthy, owing to decades of payoffs by international companies that have plundered the delta’s natural wealth. Shell, the largest foreign operator in the Niger Delta, has been criticized repeatedly for its egregious practices and its unwillingness to be held to account.
Meanwhile, the local population has remained impoverished and beset by diseases caused by unsafe air, poisoned drinking water and pollution in the food chain. Local lawlessness has led to gang warfare and persistent illegal tapping into the pipelines to steal oil, leading to further massive oil spills and frequent explosions that kill dozens, including innocent bystanders.