Gulf Oil Spill: The Development Edition

Vijaya Ramachandran and Julia Barmeier of the Center for Global Development are among the many commentators now looking at the development angle of the continuing, horrifying oil spill in the Gulf. They write:

Spills of this magnitude are not new to the developing world. Take Nigeria, for example. Due to poor regulation and pervasive corruption, we do not know for certain how much oil has leaked into the Niger Delta region. In 2006, it was reported that 47 million gallons of oil—a quantity not that different from the new estimates of the Gulf leak –has been spilt in the Delta over the past 50 years. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corp estimates that some 650,000 gallons of oil were spilled in 300 separate incidents each year; other reports indicate that Shell (which is now looking to drill in the Arctic) spilled nearly 4.5 million gallons of oil into the Niger Delta in the last year alone.

A widely-cited article in the UK’s Guardian (hat tip @cblatts) quoted the Nigerian head of an international environmental group on double-standards for corporations operating in rich and poor countries:

We see frantic efforts being made to stop the spill in the US but in Nigeria, oil companies largely ignore their spills, cover them up and destroy people's livelihood and environments. The Gulf spill can be seen as a metaphor for what is happening daily in the oilfields of Nigeria and other parts of Africa.

As America and other rich countries import oil from faraway places, we are effectively exporting the risk of disastrous oil spills and the responsibility to enforce regulation and cleanup to countries even less well-equipped to deal with those spills than the US has turned out to be. As a recent New York Times op-ed put it:

All oil comes from someone’s backyard, and when we don’t reduce the amount of oil we consume, and refuse to drill at home, we end up getting people to drill for us in Kazakhstan, Angola and Nigeria — places without America’s strong environmental safeguards or the resources to enforce them.

Kazakhstan, for one, had no comprehensive environmental laws until 2007, and Nigeria has suffered spills equivalent to that of the Exxon Valdez every year since 1969. (As of last year, Nigeria had 2,000 active spills.) Since the Santa Barbara spill of 1969, and the more than 40 Earth Days that have followed, Americans have increased by two-thirds the amount of petroleum we consume in our cars, while nearly quadrupling the quantity we import. Effectively, we’ve been importing oil and exporting spills to villages and waterways all over the world.