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Shell Blames Thieves for Recent Oil Spills in Nigeria

A fisherman shows an oil slick on his palm, by the shore of the Niger Delta region in Brass, Nigeria, Dec. 2, 2013.

A fisherman shows an oil slick on his palm, by the shore of the Niger Delta region in Brass, Nigeria, Dec. 2, 2013.

A recent oil spill in Nigeria sent about 3,800 barrels gushing out of a pipeline and into the swamps of the oil-producing Niger Delta. Royal Dutch Shell, whose Nigerian subsidiary manages the ruptured pipeline, says the spill was caused by oil theft, which is a chronic problem for oil producers in Nigeria.

Shell says the Trans Niger Pipeline transports around 180,000 barrels of crude oil per day to the Bonny Export Terminal. This is where the latest spill fouled the area around Okolo Launch on Bonny Island in the Niger Delta, polluting the catch of local fishermen who rely on the waterways to make a living.

Jurgen Janzen, assistant manager of the Trans Niger Pipeline, said the leak was caused by thieves cracking open a 24-inch pipe in an attempt to syphon off the oil. This isn’t the first time this has happened, he says.

“We’ve got thousands of wells in the Delta. We cannot be at all these wells … the footprint is just too big. They come to our wellheads and here you see the consequences," said Janzen. "But normally what happens, we do our helicopter overflies in the morning. The barge will have gone, all that we see is a lot of oil around, because they do not really care about the environment, they just want to get the oil as quickly as possible and just get out of there again.”

Pending lawsuit

Local communities blame Shell for some of the spills that have fouled the Delta. The people of Bodo, a community that suffered two spills in 2008, are suing the company in a London court.

In November, Amnesty International released court documents that it said showed Shell knew its pipeline at Bodo was shoddy. Shell denies the claim.

The extent of oil theft in the delta is visible from the air. A VOA reporter, who was taken on a helicopter flight over the delta by Shell, counted as many as a thousand illegal refineries processing the stolen crude, and a sunken tanker that had capsized as it was loading illicit fuel.

Economic hardship

Shell loses 30,000 barrels daily to theft, Janzen said. Trying to stop the theft, however, slows down production even more.

“We need to shut in our lines, every time," said Janzen. "We do it in batches. And that means the line is shut in, you cannot produce the oil, it’s still in the ground. It’s not stolen, it’s still there, you can produce it later on but no longer this year.

"We are approximately at 100,000 barrels per-day that we cannot produce, that we have got as deferred oil, as a result of oil theft. Outside of Nigeria, I’ve not come across anything that is as widely spread, and as active, as here in Nigeria.”

Shell managed to retrieve about 1,340 barrels of oil that was spilled, while another 780 evaporated, Janzen said. The rest was visibly floating on the water’s surface.

Hilary Uguru in the Niger Delta contributed to this report.