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Nigeria: Shell Oil Spill Increases Tensions in Ogoniland
May 8th, 2001

LAGOS -- Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) of Nigeria finally managed to cap the oil gushing from one of its wells in Ogoniland at the weekend, but the well's blow-out and the resulting flood of oil and gas into the immediate environment has once more intensified tensions between the giant oil company and the half-million strong Ogoni Kingdom.

Some Shell officials are openly blaming the blow-out on sabotage. On Saturday, when the team of engineers arrived to try and contain the flow, they said they had discovered a panel and some bolts which they believed had been removed from the well head. They also said some parts of the well head had been sawn. Although no inference was drawn, it was obvious where the fingers were pointing.

The Ogonis deny any responsibility, and instead say Shell is trying to divert attention away from the real problem - how to ensure a proper and speedy clean-up of the spill. They have put a number of demands to Shell, including the inclusion of Ogoni representatives in the clean-up exercise.

Indeed, containment of the spill was at first delayed by Ogoni youths, who put the demand to the assesment team that visited Ogoniland. The team included two commissioners of the Rivers State government, as well as a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly. Other members of the team were Shell's site engineers and experts from Boots and Coots, the American oil well company. Last December, engineers from Boots and Coots helped stop a similar flow from a Shell well in Delta State, after it was vandalised by unknown persons.

This latest spill occurred at a well abandoned by Shell in Ogoniland in 1993 , following mounting criticism over its operations in the area and the resulting environmental damage.

Relations between Shell and the Ogonis hit rock bottom in 1995, when the military government of the late Sani Abacha hanged nine Ogoni activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Mosop.

Sabotage apart, Shell also blames the latest blow-out on the lack of access to its own facilities in Ogoniland. It says the Ogonis have denied it access to the infrastructure - the oil wells, the flow lines which bring crude oil to the flow stations, and the pipelines - all of which require routine maintenance. All requests by Shell for access to the facilities have been denied by the Ogonis, according to an official of the company.

Now that the well has been capped, the next step is to determine the cause of the spill. Thereafter, the clean-up exercise can commence. It remains to be seen, however, how this will be managed. Shell's policy has been that it does not undertake to clean up after spills, if its investigations show that sabotage was involved, "so you don't encourage them," says the official.

Overall, the prospects for improved relations between Shell and the Ogonis do not look good. But this may not trouble the company as much as might be expected. Despite all the investment and infrastructure lying unused in Ogoniland, a source at Shell's Nigerian operations says the company is "in no hurry to get back to Ogoni."

With the oil industry's attention firmly focused on off-shore, deep water exploration, where there are no local communities to offend and massive profits to be made, it could be that Shell has bigger fish to fry.

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