Niger Delta always slick with oil

Elisabeth Rosenthal reminds us that while it seems like a big deal to Americans when a giant oil disaster spreads a vast slick across our waters, we seem not to care much when the oil is spilled in somebody else’s waters by our companies supplying Nigerian oil for 40% our current consumption:

But it is important to remember that this mammoth polluting event, so extraordinary here, is not so unusual in some parts of the world. In an article published Sunday in The Guardian of London, John Vidal, the paper’s environment editor, movingly recalls a trip to the Niger Delta a few years ago, where he literally swam in “pools of light Nigerian crude.”

A network of decades-old pipes and oil extraction equipment in the delta has been plagued by serious leaks and spills. “More oil is spilled from the delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico,” he writes.
[…]
Here in the United States, people express outrage at BP’s actions in the gulf and demand that the oil giant behave responsibly in our waters. But should they also insist that oil companies behave well in the developing countries where their oil comes from? After all, many people insist on “fair trade” coffee and non-sweatshop clothing.

One more excerpt from Mr. Vidal’s fascinating article: “If this gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention,” said the writer Ben Ikari, a member of the Ogoni people. “This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta.”

 
Where eleven employees of British Petroleum were killed in the initial explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in April, frequent pipeline explosions in the Niger Delta region (sometimes caused by rebels) often kill a hundred or more people at a time, many simply too close at the time. As John Vidal explains in his article, the ensuing spills and leaks destroy crops, pollute drinking water, and kill vital fish stocks. Companies such as Shell and Exxon usually take their light sweet time about fixing the leaks, sometimes springing from ancient pipes that just rusted away. And until the relative recent democratization of the country, anyone who pointed this out faced the possibility of the death sentence from a government getting fat off American oil money. Even now, villagers report attacks from security guards if they get too vocal, while Shell claims villagers prevent them from making repairs to try to get more compensation money. Yeah right.

How much is being spilled or is leaking? Well, right now there are about 300 incidents a year, and that has added up over the decades.

One report, compiled by WWF UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian federal government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, calculated in 2006 that up to 1.5m tons of oil – 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska – has been spilled in the delta over the past half century. Last year Amnesty calculated that the equivalent of at least 9m barrels of oil was spilled and accused the oil companies of a human rights outrage.

According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites, many going back decades, with thousands of smaller ones still waiting to be cleared up. More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell alone.

Last month Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009. The majority, said the company, was lost through two incidents – one in which the company claims that thieves damaged a wellhead at its Odidi field and another where militants bombed the Trans Escravos pipeline.

 
As stated above, the United States gets 40% of its oil from the Niger Delta right now, and Nigeria is now the third-largest American supplier nation, beating out Saudi Arabia. You should care about this. (Further reading, with incredible photos, here.)

The Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is definitely bad, but we need to stop drilling for oil everywhere and change the whole world to clean energy soon… not just the United States. So many reasons to do it, and this is just one more.

Caption: An oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. Wellhead 14 was closed in 1977 but has been leaking for years, and in June of 2004 it finally released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude. Above: Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company clean it up.
photo & caption by Ed Kashi, via citisven

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

North Carolina Republican wants Reagan on the 50

When you’re a relatively new Republican representative from the South, there are lots of proposals you could make to burnish your credentials as a southern conservative. But some are more stupid and transparently reactionary than others. Case in point, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) is proposing that President Ulysses S. Grant be removed from the $50 bill, in favor of President Ronald Reagan. Now, we all know why Reagan: he’s the mythologized hero of the Right who don’t or won’t remember what they thought of him at the time. (For the record, McHenry was barely a teenager when Reagan left the White House, which explains a good deal.)

But why did he decide to go with the $50? His official (weak) reasoning:

President Reagan would be replacing President Ulysses S. Grant on the bill. In polls of presidential scholars, President Reagan consistently outranks President Grant. In 2005, The Wall Street Journal conducted one such poll of bipartisan scholars which ranked President Reagan 6th and President Grant 29th.

 
I’m deeply skeptical that this is the true reason… If you don’t remember your American History of the 1860s and 1870s, President Grant was the United States Army General who kicked Confederate butt all over the map and finally finished the Civil War in the Union’s favor… and then when he was elected President in 1868, he proceeded to implement a strong Federal Reconstruction policy in the South that protected the rights of liberated Blacks, cracked down and wiped out the original Ku Klux Klan, and implemented martial law in several Southern states until order was restored. Once Grant left office, most of his policies were immediately reversed by President Hayes as a result of the Compromise of 1877 that selected him as the winner on condition that he pull Federal troops out, which was the only force ensuring the policy’s implementation. Because of that policy, the Southern states in the post-Reconstruction period voted en masse for Democrats and against Republicans all the way until the 1960s, nearly a century later, when the Democratic hold began to slip as the national party began pushing for desegregation.

In the ensuing decades from the 1960s to the present, Republicans gradually reposition themselves as the more establishment-friendly/states’ rights party, and many Southern Democrats switched parties eventually to become Republicans. In many places, the lingering anti-Republican sentiment has continued to this day at a local level, with party switches being the only thing that finally turns a district to Republicans from conservadem/dixiecrat control. Ronald Reagan was a big factor in continuing Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” to flip the South into a solid Republican bastion — that it is today — at the presidential level. So, this proposal is a win-win for reactionary Republicans stuck in the past down South: it dumps Reconstructionist Grant in favor of states’ rights Reagan.

Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton who has actually even written a supportive book on Reagan, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times vigorously protesting McHenry’s proposal, giving many reasons why Grant deserves to remain on the fifty, instead of Reagan. He includes a lot of reasons I didn’t go over that were unrelated to Reconstruction and the Civil War, but I tend to think those are why McHenry wants to replace Grant. Wilentz makes a compelling case, additionally, that Grant’s reputation — which McHenry cites as reason for replacement — is the unjust result of extended character assassination after his death by pro-Confederate historians.

Fortunately, I don’t think McHenry has enough pull to make this go any place. Nevertheless, I think we should remain vigilant, since the Republicans did manage to use their majority a few years ago to quietly remove the Lincoln Memorial from the back of the penny.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Niger junta taking steps to restore democracy

As previously pledged, the military regime that suddenly seized power in Niger from the democratically-elected president just over a week ago in a violent coup d’état has begun taking steps to restore democratic rule:

As its promised transition to democratic rule begins, the military junta that overthrew Nigerien president Mamadou Tandja on February 18 has named a former information minister, Mahamadou Danda, as the new prime minister while retaining legislative and executive powers for itself.

Danda, 59, is seen as unaffiliated to any political party, was appointed on Feb. 23 by the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (known by its French acronym, CSRD).

In a declaration broadcast nationally the previous day, CSRD head Djibo Salou was announced as head of state and the government; the junta will, for the moment, have the final word in governing the country.

Marou Amadou, president of a coalition of groups opposed to the ousted president known as the United Front To Safeguard Democratic Gains (FUSAD, after its French acronym) believes this first decree provides further guarantees of the junta’s intention to return power to civilians.

“The length of this transition will be decided after the consultations with all political and social stakeholders in the country announced by the junta,” Amadou told IPS. He hopes the transition will be neither too slow, nor overly hasty.

 
Because of the falling popularity of the democratic administration — due to it’s consolidation of power and the famine conditions nationwide — the coup has been met with generally positive reactions within Niger, though some expressed concern of a repeat of the breakdown of bureaucratic function seen in the months after the more violent 1999 coup.

Outside Niger, there were mixed reactions as most major power diplomatic corps struggled to decide whether to condemn the coup, encourage the rapid reintroduction of democratic norms, or help the average Nigerien get critical food supplies. Since sanctions placed on the democratic regime were already aggravating a food crisis, further sanctions would have been damaging and entirely unproductive. The United Nations pledged food aid, while the United States cautiously urged the junta to continue steps toward democracy and lightly condemned the illegal seizure of power (which involved heavy exchanges of fire right near the US embassy in Niamey). An interview about the coup with the Deputy Secretary of State for African Affairs, William Fitzgerald, can be read here.

As I previously examined, Niger is a major uranium-producing country, so there is a good reason for the world to be paying attention to its politics.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

A day later, Niger is calm

Following yesterday’s sudden, violent military coup in the West African nation of Niger, reports suggest all has returned to calm today:

The military junta that overthrew the president of Niger began asserting its authority on Friday, amid signs of public support within the country and condemnation from abroad.

Tanks continued to be posted at strategic locations in the capital, Niamey, a day after an assault on the presidential palace ended in the removal of President Mamadou Tandja, whose turn toward autocracy in the last year had made him widely unpopular in the nation’s cities.

Local journalists said that Mr. Tandja was imprisoned in a military barracks, as supporters of his ouster marched in the capital. “The situation is calm,” said Moussa Kaka, who runs radio station Saraounia and had been jailed by the Tandja government. Mr. Kaka said he and hundreds of others went into the streets of Niamey on Friday in a show of support for the coup. Another demonstration is planned for Saturday.

 
There is some confusion outside the country as to who is in charge of the military regime. Reports I read earlier today say a “squadron leader” was heading the new junta, but the NY Times currently says a major in the army is head of the “Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy,” the junta’s official title. Many past coups in Africa have been led by junior officers (e.g. Army Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso), while most coups in Asia and Latin America have been led by generals, but a squadron leader seemed a bit too junior, so this makes more sense. Earlier today, the military announced that it would be keeping civilian ministers and bureaucrats in office, to keep the government running as smoothly as possible under the circumstances. Several briefly jailed ministers have been released.

UPDATE @ 9:31 PM: I’ve been looking up some stuff about Niger in the CIA World Factbook because I wanted to know more about the uranium deposits. Most of the country is a desert (it’s in the Sahara) and the remaining savanna zone is rapidly being swallowed into the desert by a combination of water depletion by overuse and global warming. Uranium mining is the biggest industry in the country, which is one of the poorest in the world. Uranium is the biggest export, since the salt trade has lots its preeminence over the past several centuries, and Niger probably has the biggest uranium supply worldwide. This unfortunately makes Niger a major chess piece in the modern geopolitical “game.” President Obama just announced yesterday major support for investment in nuclear energy, which due to US laws against repeated enrichment probably means the US needs even more uranium soon, assuming the projects go forward. And I think China is also expanding its nuclear energy program. Basically, this coup will change very little, and the people of Niger will continue to get screwed over by great powers and moneyed interests, as well as by geography.

UPDATE II @ 9:43: I’m also curious about how this coup played out yesterday. I wonder if it was intended to be a bloodless coup or not (it was not). That’s been the more modern trend in military coups. This was pretty violent, by all accounts, with the nearby American embassy staff reporting heavy gunfire and even shelling for several hours, apparently between the presidential guards and the attacking troops. However, the coup leaders notably did not assassinate the president, according to what we know right now, but they merely arrested him and are holding him captive somewhere. This suggests the violence may not have been part of the plan, but it’s also conceivable they would plan on attacking the presidential palace first before making arrests as a scare tactic or a way of eliminating armed opposition quickly… either way, now that they have him in custody, they can spin this to the people and the world as a political intervention to protect democracy, rather than a naked power-grab. It’s also a useful insurance policy if anything goes wrong, much like the Russians during their revolution held the family of the Tsar captive for a while and was rumored to have kept one member alive significantly longer (this has since been disproven). The world these days tends to be much more tolerant of coups that leave the civilian leaders alive than coups that involve bloody, cold-blooded purges of senior officials. They’re not happy with this coup right now, but they’ll be more likely to get over it if the president remains alive.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

The problem with GDP

Gross Domestic Product (or GDP for short) has been a good blunt instrument since the 1930s for getting a quick reading of economic growth in an country. However, with every passing year, it has become waved around more and more as an accurate measurement of the economy, even as criticisms of its flaws mount. It’s become used for way more than it was ever intended, and that causes policy problems. David Moberg wrote a good piece last week for the newspaper In These Times, in which he laid out some of the major criticisms of GDP as a measurement and looked at some of the possible solutions people are developing. Here are some of the main problems:

Before the crash, GDP reports were just as out of sync with people’s experiences [as they are now with GDP growing again and jobs stagnating]. GDP rose throughout the Bush era, but people were largely unhappy with the economy. Most people’s real incomes weren’t growing, just those of the rich. It became clear that much of the GDP boom was an illusion. It was composed of a bubble of housing assets and funny-money financial derivatives. And since current growth is creating a climate crisis, it is also environmentally unsustainable.

One of the key problems with GDP as a measure of national welfare is that it treats “bad goods (and services)” the same as “good goods.” If it costs $100 million to clean up a toxic waste dump but only $1 million to avoid it, the clean-up directly contributes 100 times as much to the GDP as the prevention, making the country “wealthier.”

In other words, waste and inefficiency can make GDP bigger but leave people worse off. For example, healthcare expenditures rose rapidly in recent years, but overall care and health outcomes did not keep pace. A single-payer system could have provided better health at lower cost, but the GDP would have been smaller in the short term.

Also, the GDP does not distinguish between the long-term significance of different types of economic activity. (That fact didn’t bother Michael J. Boskin, chairman of President George H. W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, who said that “it doesn’t make any difference whether a country makes potato chips or computer chips.”) Likewise, the GDP does not recognize the loss of value when a dead-end job replaces one with more meaning. And it does not distinguish between egalitarian societies and those, like the United States, where the rich have recently captured most of the GDP growth.

 
It’s a serious issue because policymakers need something simple and easy to understand when writing legislation… and GDP is both, but wildly inaccurate. The fact that — and this is hypothetical, though I’ve heard it proposed — knocking down and rebuilding a foreclosed neighborhood has more GDP value than trying to help people adjust their mortgages so they can stay and improve the neighborhood is deeply troubling to me. The similar example above about pollution cleanup having more GDP value than preventing the pollution is a classic scenario among critics.

Fortunately, according to the article, some big politicians (e.g. French President Nicolas Sarkozy) are pushing for a change, and there are some big name economists (Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz) out there drafting alternatives to Gross Domestic Product. There are already some ideas floating around that haven’t caught on, including the Index of Sustainable Welfare:

Ecological economists Herman Daly and John Cobb developed an Index of Sustainable Welfare, which expanded the GDP to include indicators such as income distribution, natural resource depletion, environmental damage and the values of leisure. Their index showed that “sustainable welfare” tracked the GDP fairly closely in the United States until the late 1960s, then was flat or declined through the late 1980s, even as GDP grew.

 
There’s also the oft-mentioned “Gross National Happiness” measurement in use in Bhutan, but it wouldn’t export well. In any case, it’s unsustainable to keep using GDP, so there needs to be something better put into place fast if we want to operate a good society.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Nigerian VP assumes control

The National Assembly finally formally declared Nigeria’s Vice President Goodluck Jonathan the acting president, earlier this week, resolving the constitutional crisis of who was running the OPEC member nation that represents over 15% of Africa’s entire population, in the somewhat mysterious absence of President Umaru Yar’adua. Most of the American media had ignored the fact that the president had been in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment with no defined plans to return SINCE NOVEMBER. Nigeria’s Senate finally agreed to promote VP Jonathan after a BBC interview with President Yar’adua was released a month ago, in which he sounded very weak and again gave no indication of an imminent return. President Yar’adua repeatedly refused to issue a statement regarding a transfer of power for over 70 days.

The United States rushed to welcome him as Acting President because of the growing threat of instability as the political crisis continued. The US relies on Nigerian oil more and more every year.

I’m still baffled as to how this happened and why it wasn’t made into a big deal, as it should have been. In addition to an attempted major terrorist attack by a Nigerian, the country has faced some serious violence and rebel attacks, while the president has been gone.

Also, for the human interest angle, check out this article [dead link] on the amazing luck Acting President Goodluck Jonathan has had his whole life. He’s a zoologist and a hydrobiologist, who was an environmental minister briefly and fortuitously became governor after being chosen as a lieutenant governor in his state under a corrupt governor who resigned; then he was unexpectedly chosen as running mate by the outgoing president orchestrating the 2007 PDP ticket that won, and now he’s suddenly President. And what a boss hat he wears.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Heavy fighting in Yemen

Just days after President Obama said he had “no intention of sending U.S. boots on the ground” in Yemen or Somalia, US-supported and armed Saudi and Yemeni forces began heavily “cleansing” Yemeni villages of rebel forces.

Side note, added 11:57 PM US ET: I think cleansing is a surprising choice of words, especially since this is a Shia group with ethnotribal elements. So is Saudi Arabia admitting to ethnic cleansing? (Assuming this has been translated correctly.)

Two rebellions in rural, mountainous regions have grown in strength this year and pushed the Yemeni government’s attention away from terrorism and back to the rebellions, just when the United States expects the former to be a priority. Saudi Arabia, feeling threatened both by cross-border rebel attacks and by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (which has flourished in rebel-protected safe havens), launched a military offensive into Yemen in early November 2009.

Oddly, Yemen is still saying that they will not allow foreign troops into Yemen, despite the presence of Saudi Arabian troops right near Yemeni operations. The US has been sending arms and money to the Army, as well, and conducted missile strikes in mid-December on alleged al Qaeda sites. Yemen receives military training from US special forces advisers and the CIA is active in various covert or semi-cover operations there. Even before the Christmas Day bombing attempt was linked to Yemen, drawing renewed attention to the problem of terrorism there, Yemen had been (fairly successfully, if questionably) trying to cast the struggle against the rebels as part of the global war on terrorism, in an effort to secure funding.

Houthi rebels allege that the Yemeni Army has been bulldozing village houses to force rebels out. The central government of Yemen, which prematurely declared the war over in 2008, is insisting that they will wipe out the rebels once and for all.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.