23 December 2011, Sweetcrude, ABUJA – An oil slick, estimated at roughly 350 square miles in size from the Royal Dutch Shell’s Bonga field, is slowly making its way toward the southern Nigerian coast, threatening wildlife and widespread shore pollution, Nigerian officials have said.
Royal Dutch Shell confirmed that the deepwater spill occurred on Tuesday during what the company called a “routine transfer” of crude from a floating storage device in the Bonga oil fields 75 miles offshore to a tanker; a leak in one of the transfer lines caused the spill.
The company said that at most about 40,000 barrels had been lost, which would be less than one percent of the oil thought to have spurted from the well beneath the Deepwater Horizon during the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010. The company also said that 50 percent of the oil had already evaporated into the air or been dispersed by wave action.
But Peter Idabor, the head of Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, said the leakage could be three times as large as Shell contends and may be the country’s worst case of oil pollution in 10 years.
“This is potentially a major incident that is likely to affect the environment and the people for a long time,” Mr. Idabor said.
The spill also comes just days after Shell received final permission from President Barack Obama’s administration in the United States to start drilling exploratory wells in the highly ecologically sensitive region of the Arctic, a fact not lost on American critics of the drilling.
“It is a reminder, also, that we have no business drilling for oil in the Arctic waters,” said Bob Deans of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy group. “Look at what this oil is doing in Nigeria, then imagine trying to clean it up in waters choked with ice eight months a year, with gale winds and 20-foot seas, in a place a five-day cruise by cutter from the nearest U.S. Coast Guard station, in Kodiak.”
Shell has been blamed for many previous oil spills in the Nigerian Niger Delta, where a majority of the population lives in poverty atop some of the world’s richest reserves of oil and gas.
A United Nations environmental assessment report released in August said Shell’s operations were responsible for the contamination of farmlands and rivers in the Ogoni area of the Delta. Environmentalists say many oil spills go unreported, and they have accused the oil companies of deliberately underreporting those that do become public.
John Amos, the president of SkyTruth, a nonprofit organization based in West Virginia that provides independent information on environmental catastrophes, said that his group’s analysis of photos and satellite images indicated that Shell’s estimate of the size of the spill off the coast of Nigeria on Tuesday was not far off.
“We believe the spill is consistent with the high end of their estimate,” Mr. Amos said.
SkyTruth estimated the size of the slick at 350 square miles.
Nigerian lawmakers said Thursday that if the Bonga spill did indeed occur during a routine loading, that would indicate a weakness in operational standards. “The spill calls for a need to review the standards in the industry,” said Magnus Abbe, the chairman of the Senate committee on petroleum.
Shell said late Thursday that remotely operated underwater vehicles had confirmed that the spill was caused by a leak in a “flexible export line” that linked a tanker to a large floating storage container. David R. Williams, a Shell spokesman, said the company was investigating what caused the leak in the line feeding the tanker, as well as why the leak was not stopped before so much oil had spilled.
Shell has closed down the entire Bonga oil field, a site 75 miles off the coast of Nigeria that normally produces roughly 200,000 barrels of oil and gas a day.
Tony Okonedo, a Shell spokesman in Nigeria, said satellite pictures had shown that the overall area covered by the sheen was less than a hundredth of a millimeter thick in most areas and that the company was deploying considerable resources to combat it.
Among the tools Shell said it was using were five ships with dispersants, infrared equipment to locate areas in the slick where the sheen may be thicker and mapping of sensitive ecological areas on land and sea so booms could be placed strategically.