Monday, 9 July 2012

Dan Sharpe: Under-Publicised Oil Spills

Dan Sharpe's latest column for the GfGD blog looks at the problems that come from poorly reported oil spills in the developing world, and how geoscientists can address this.

In September 2008, the lives of 69,000 people living in and around Bodo, Nigeria, began to change permanently. It was rumoured that oil was first spotted in the marshes around the region in August, but Shell contested that the leak officially occurred in September that year. I mentioned this oil spill in passing as part of my blog “Oil in Society- Exploring for Sustainability” and felt this story deserved its own report.

“We could smell the oil long before we saw it – the stench of garage forecourts and rotting vegetation hanging thickly in the air” explained John Vidal - environmental editor for The Observer - in his article on this subject. The leak occurred on a section of the 50 year-old trans-Niger pipeline that transports up to 120,000 barrels of oil every day. At the height of the crisis Shell admitted that as much as 2,000 barrels per day was leaking directly into the water system. Of course nobody questioned this at the time, after-all no news crews or NGOs were there investigating this incident. A later assessment by the independent oil spill consultancy company Accufacts suggested that as much as 311,000 barrels may have been leaked into the creaks near Bodo.

The spill continued right through to mid-November that year when the leak was fixed, however just a month later another leak was discovered along the pipeline this time above an area of marsh. The second leak did not start to be fixed or even evaluated until late February the next year, but this is just a part of the issue I am aiming to convey here.

Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico
(Source: NASA/GSFC)
I am guessing all who read this will be fully aware of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but how many have heard of the Bodo spill? Hidden away in Africa, news teams fleetingly visited the site of the crisis but this was not front page news; at least not for long. And how many know there has been another spill more recently? I certainly did not.

This latest incident has leaked as much as 2 million gallons of oil into the ocean just off the coast of Nigeria in an incident that has capped over 50 years of spoilage from the hydrocarbons industry. So why is it that nobody hears of the oil spills here? 13 out of the top 17 oil fields are in the Middle East and yet no news is told of the environmental consequences of the hydrocarbons industry here. Six of the top ten oil spills have occurred in the Middle East, however it is those in the North Sea and east coast of the States that we hear about.

This lack of news coverage is a problem, and geoscientists must determine what they can do to publicise and address these problems. The first stage should involve independent consultancy companies assessing these spills and monitoring companies working in more remote locations. This should go hand-in-hand with geoscientists encouraging science journalists to publicise and report their findings, in partnership with the more formal reports released by oil companies. These actions will help to raise public awareness and put pressure on the oil companies and local governments to tighten up on the frequency, size and recovery of leaks. Further work may involve geological engineering to produce new equipment, or the use of further independent consultancies to give guidance on how to better manage the equipment already being used. 

Who will pay for all this? Well it is no secret that the oil industry is lucrative business, and in times of increasing ‘green’ awareness the public opinion of large oil producing firms is becoming more and more important. It is surely the responsibility of the oil companies to curb the size and number of leaks that occur throughout the developing world, and geoscientists play a fundamental role in all stages of doing this. Together these efforts can improve the efficiency of the oil industry, and improve the quality of life of people living in and around producing oil fields.

Further Reading: