The true cost of oil

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 July, 2010, 12:00am

The oil spill that has spread across the Gulf of Mexico is one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. It has ruined fishing and tourism in the area, putting thousands of people out of work.

What about oil spills in poor countries that don't have the kind of global importance and reach that the US has?

The Niger Delta, in Nigeria, has suffered thousands of oil spills that have spoiled the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers and turned the water foul. Fewer people hear about these oil spills because they affect mostly poor people who live in a country that gets little international attention. The Nigerian government estimates there were more than 7,000 spills, large and small, between 1970 and 2000. There were more than 230 spills a year, some of which have been leaking for years.

Not only is Nigeria Africa's largest oil producer, the country also has thousands of kilometres of above-ground pipelines. Many of the spills have been caused by people fighting for control over the oil riches, while others are a result of crumbling infrastructure.

Many of the world's poorest countries are oil exporters, including the Congo, Yemen and Vietnam. What happens when international oil companies working in these places cause an oil spill? Many of these countries lack the laws or courts to make sure the companies responsible for oil spills are forced to pay for the cleanup. These spills do not appear on the front page of newspapers or attract thousands of protesters to shame companies into taking action.

The oil from these poor countries fuels the luxurious lifestyles of wealthier nations and cities like Hong Kong. It's easy for us to enjoy the benefits of these oil wells without having to worry about the problems they create for the environment.

Using clean, renewable energy can help reduce the amount of oil we use, but won't replace it. Companies will still drill oil wells and cause oil spills. We should push our governments to pass stricter pollution laws, and encourage global corporations to take greater responsibility for their actions in poor countries.