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Criminal Activity Behind Oil Spills in Ogoniland

The U.N. Environment Program says it expects to complete a comprehensive environmental assessment of the causes and the impacts of oil spills in Ogoniland, a part of Nigeria's Niger Delta by December. UNEP says investigations indicate the vast majority of the oil spilled into the Niger Delta was caused by criminal activity, not systems failure by the oil companies.

The U.N. report will provide the first comprehensive overview of the environmental situation in the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta.

The U.N. Environmental Program's Project Coordinator, Michael Cowing, says this is the largest scientific investigation undertaken by the agency.

He says the oil spills in the Niger Delta have been going on for 10 years, but they have not received the kind of attention received by the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

He says there is a fundamental difference between the two situations. He says the oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and other notable incidents such as the Amaco Cadiz are operational accidents.

"What we are finding in the Niger Delta is a very different situation. We are finding the proliferation of oil spills through criminal activity, through the bunkering, through the theft of oil, by sabotaging the oil wells and also sabotaging the main pressurized supply lines," said Cowing. "So, a very different scenario. Only something in the order of 10 percent of the oil spills by number and by volume actually relate to equipment failure."

The Nigerian-based advocacy group, Environmental Rights Action, says the UNEP assessment essentially gives Royal Dutch Shell and the Nigerian government a clean bill of health.

It accuses the agency of siding with Shell because the oil giant is paying for the UNEP study. The group blames Shell for polluting the Niger Delta and is demanding that it pay billions of dollars in compensation to local communities and to pay for the cleanup.

UNEP was invited by the Nigerian government in 2007 to undertake the environmental study. The agency started work in October 2009. The scientific teams are expected to finish collecting samples of water, sediment, soil and plant and animal tissue this month.

Cowing says the UNEP report will deal with the root causes of the problems. He says he agrees up to a point with critics who claim people in Ogoniland are stealing the oil because the government is exploiting them by not giving them a fair share of the oil revenue.

"However, many of the Ogonis themselves say that is not the case, that many of the people involved in the industrial level of oil theft are actually from outside of Ogoniland and it is being dumped to the detriment of the Ogonis because they are the ones whose fishing industry, whose agriculture, whose forestry, whose way of life has been destroyed by oil bunkering and oil theft," he said.

The UNEP study will make recommendations to the government on the most appropriate measures to clean up the environment of Ogoniland. The agency expects the cleanup will be very expensive and will take five to 10 years to complete.

Cowing agrees ongoing violence and lack of security in Ogoniland will complicate the process.