Opinion Pieces

Deepwater Horizon, Bhopal and The Niger Delta : what have we learnt?

In the Gulf of Mexico the blow out beneath BP’s oil rig has revealed just how little regulation was provided by the US Minerals Management Service. It now seems likely that BP, an international giant formed as the result of a merger between the Amoco (formerly Standard Oil) and British Petroleum Companies, will be held to account for a final bill of up to $20 Billion.

It seems that powerful governments can extract a price from powerful companies for their health and environmental damage, but what about the rest of the world? With no prospect of global governance or effective international law it seems that global companies face little prospect of being held to account for the health and environmental damage they cause, provided it is in a country that is poor enough to escape notice.

This week after 25 years a court in India has finally convicted 8 Directors and Managers of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, for the pesticide leak in 1984 that killed 3,500 people at the time and 15,000 people in the intervening years. Union Carbide’s International Board escaped conviction and paid a fine of less that $500 million. Those sentenced were all Indian, one is already dead. They face up to two years in prison and a fine of less that $2,250 but are likely to appeal.

Meanwhile in the Niger delta Nigerian federal government figures, estimate 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 who, last month, admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009.