The True Cost of Fossil Fuels: Two Case Studies You Haven’t Heard of

Less than six months after the final plugging of the BP Gulf Oil Leak, most people have moved on.  But as happens with every major disaster, the poorest people and the environment itself will suffer for years and generations to come.

Gore Vidal said we now live in “the United States of Amnesia,” where no one remembers anything before Monday morning.  True. But even more disturbing, the larger story is one of apathy, ignorance, a lack of regulation, and a booming demand for fossil fuels that is not sustainable.

One area that most of us couldn’t pick out on a map in the Niger River delta in coastal Nigeria.  You may not have heard of the one million gallon Exxon Mobil oil spill that took place on the land there this past spring. This is comparable to the reported amount that polluted the Gulf of Mexico last year (I feel the BP amount was much larger).  Wells of drinking water were polluted, fishing and farming livelihoods lost. The blame lies with Exxon and some old, rusty pipelines.

Why is this not news? Well, to put it simply, “because it’s not.”  This happens all the time in Nigeria.  Over 300 spills a year. Ten major spills in the last two years.  Spills are often caused by fantastic explosions with apocalyptic fires raging afterward.  In 2000, one such explosion killed more than 700 people.  By some accounts, an amount equal to the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 (10.8 million gallons) spills onto Nigerian soil and wetland every year… for the last 50 years.  With the demand for oil increasing, it is only getting worse.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country.  It earns 95% of its foreign exchange from oil revenues. Its fifty year history of accelerated oil extraction has produced riches for many inside and outside of the country. But the vast majority of Nigerians suffer from air/water/land pollution from the industry, not to mention the history of brutal authorities that defend oil company interests over those of their own people. This injustice has bred a culture of violence and distrust across the region.

Dutch Shell oil is appealing a $100 million fine from a Nigerian court to pay for the various spills.  Shell and the other major firms like to point out that some of the spills, if not “up to 98%” are due to militants bombing the pipelines and illegal taps by locals “stealing” oil.

OK, this stuff is news, just not for American mass media consumption.  Video ccourtesy of Al-Jazeera English:

Question: How can regulation of any irresponsible or abusive behavior on the part of Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and the rest, come to be here in a nation of powerless people who are held hostage by their own land’s natural resources?

CASE 2:  In my backyard? One of the more obvious cases of environmental injustice here in the U.S. (the biggest natural disaster  ever on land in the U.S.).

The local environmental costs in the U.S. are also becoming more visible.  On December 22, 2008, the Associated Press reported the largest manmade environmental disaster up to that point in the country’s history occurred near Harriman, Tenn. when an earthen levee holding back coal ash sludge gave way, unleashing over a billion gallons of the highly toxic goop across the landscape.  Such a colossal amount of a highly toxic substance being dumped in the ground without a seal underneath it has been viewed as a failure of regulation.  According to AP, the site was a dumping ground for a nearby power plant.

Decades of the dumped coal ash mixture built up higher and higher daily to what proved to be a disastrous level that could no longer be contained by the levees.  The waters of the Emory River were sullied by the concentrated waste flowing directly into it.  Local residents are reporting illnesses.  Toxic levels of selenium, cadmium, cobalt, arsenic, mercury, and lead may contaminate the land and groundwater for the foreseeable future.  These byproducts of coal use are some of the deadliest elements in nature.

The solutions here are fairly common sense.  The dependence on coal should be greatly reduced.  Few are delusional enough to believe that will happen any time soon.  But tighter regulations on pollution control, and more importantly, enforcement of those regulations, need to take place immediately.

In George W. Bush’s America, and indeed, under any administration in the last 30 years, regulation is seen as an evil force to protect the good souls within large foreign and domestic corporations from the big and bad citizens that dare to live anywhere.  I single out Bush, or should I say Cheney and Co. (W. had nothing to do with Bush policy formation) because they systematically dismantled regulation of all industry, especially those they hold stock in and who they have worked for in the past (and would again in the future). See Halliburton, etc. Not to mention campaign contributors.

I digress.  All of these problems we have with fossil fuel consumption can be greatly reduced if people just cared a little more about each other and themselves. A better education system and a more objective media would also help.  I’ll have much more to say on these issues, but these solutions will be a common theme on my blog.  When spitballing blog ideas, I should probably just start with these simple solutions and work backwards, thinking of all the problems resulting from a lack of these things.


About Joe Doolen

I am a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. My aim is to write on science and international issues with a focus on environmental policy and justice. Topics range from local and domestic politics to international communications and culture, and anything cool about science really!!
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4 Responses to The True Cost of Fossil Fuels: Two Case Studies You Haven’t Heard of

  1. Eric V says:

    Nice post Joe. I thought I was informed about these sorts of things, turns out I’m not. I had never heard of these spills. I have heard though of how bustling of an oil industry Nigeria has and the extent of its operations. Keep up the good uncovering work.

  2. Sounds like you’re getting a good start at international reporting!

    Where do organizations such as OPEC fit into all of this?

    I wonder how things have changed since the advent of the iPhone, too. (I hear we’re stripping African countries of their metals for smart phones). Sad stuff…

    • Thanks Marianne,
      Nigeria joined OPEC in 1971, and as a result (?) the government owns a majority of Shell Nigeria. That’s a good idea, to research the relationship between membership and power. Still there is a huge equity problem among the populace. The mining is a whole other very sad issue, but with similar themes.

  3. Deborah Blum says:

    Great post, Joe, and I was especially glad to see you frame it around the Nigerian oil spill. Too often we pretend that environmental disasters in other countries don’t mean anything, even though our companies are involved and we use oil from that region. And I agree that we tend to greatly underestimate the environmental costs of fossil fuels. Have you considered writing about fracking, the subject of the Academy-award nominated documentary Gasland?

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