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Stopping the Spill: How Oil Is Changing Our Earth

August 22, 2022

News headlines every few years can leave the impression that oil spills are rare, one-off events, like BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 or the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. In reality, they happen constantly: Over 700 million gallons of waste oil reach the ocean every year, destroying entire ecosystems and communities. Beyond its role in hastening climate change, oil has proven catastrophic for environments around the world. For the sake of our planet now, our dependence on oil cannot continue.

While no region is unaffected by the impacts of oil drilling—and spilling—certain communities have been particularly devastated. But there is hope: As the consequences of our oil dependence intensify, global awareness is growing.

Toxic Lands

The Niger Delta in Nigeria is a sobering example of what can happen when oil companies have free reign to extract and transport oil through wilderness and residential areas. Rivers now flowing with black sludge, these once-verdant, wildlife-rich wetlands have become one of the most polluted places on Earth. Since 2011, Nigeria has seen over 1,000 oil spills from Shell alone; though the oil conglomerate has faced over a decade of litigation on the matter, in 2021, the volume of crude oil spills in the African country more than doubled.

The United States has its own parallels in the Gulf of Mexico. The infamous oil spill from BP’s Deepwater Horizon began in 2010 and only reached partial containment in 2019. At an estimated 210 million gallons leaked, it’s the largest oil spill in the industry’s history; traces are still present today. Though U.S. waters see thousands of oil spills every year of varying degrees, the Gulf has routinely become the country’s dumping ground, facing a substantial oil spill as recently as 2021.

Oil pollution in Goi in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, 2020 (Photo: George Osodi)

The Impacts of Oil

Certain impacts of oil spills are obvious—a day at the beach is ruined, seafood becomes contaminated, marine life suffers. Oil, at first, sits on the surface, where it can lead to fouling or oiling—e.g. when a bird’s oil-covered wings render it unable to fly. The fossil fuel is also full of toxic chemicals, which can lead to any number of health side effects in both wildlife and humans. Oil spills eventually alter the landscape, reducing sedimentation rates and eliminating native flora.

The effects ripple out from there, impacting the makeup of local communities, often irreversibly. In the Niger Delta, fishermen no longer work in a viable industry and local farmland has been rendered non-arable. In the vast majority of cases, oil companies walk away from these disasters making billions. Occasionally there is remuneration: In 2008 and 2009, after two back-to-back oil spills in the Delta, Shell offered locals $4,000. Thanks to local activists taking legal action, that number was increased to $83 million.

The People Fight Back

Environmental activists have long been stepping up to the global stage to combat fossil fuels. They are taking on more than just big oil—they’re fighting corruption, power, and greed.

Take, for example, the work of Prize winner Ken Saro-Wiwa (Nigeria, 1995). Royal Dutch Shell struck oil in his Nigerian homeland in 1958. 35 years later, Ken—author, television producer, and activist—organized peaceful protests across the region speaking out against three decades of environmental destruction. The Nigerian government arrested Ken for his activism and executed him in 1995, the same year he won the Goldman Prize for his non-violent efforts.

Starting in 2013, Chima Williams (Nigeria, 2022), environmental lawyer and executive director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, worked with Nigerian communities to take on Shell. After a legal battle spanning eight years, the Court of Appeal of the Hague found Shell liable in 2021 for widespread environmental damage across the Niger Delta. The case marked the first time a Dutch transnational corporation was held responsible for its subsidiaries across the globe—setting precedent for future court cases against big oil.

In the US, Caroline Cannon (United States, 2012) made headlines with her work protecting the Arctic Ocean from offshore drilling. A voice for Alaska’s Inupiat community, Caroline was instrumental in stopping all but one proposed oil and gas lease in the Chukchi Sea. Dmitry Lisitysyn (Russia, 2011), Willie Corduff (Ireland, 2007), Manana Kochladze (Georgia, 2004) have spearheaded similar efforts—and succeeded.

What the Future Holds

Goldman Prize winners stoke the flames of hope in the fight against big oil. Business as usual is no longer an option; if we keep fighting at a local level upward, the future will be brighter—and cleaner.

Chima Williams takes photos during a visit to an oil polluted area in the Niger Delta. (Photo: George Osodi)

Header image: George Osodi

About the author

Jacqueline Kehoe

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer whose work focuses on citizen conservation and public lands. She has been published in National Geographic, Sierra, Lonely Planet, and more.

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