Monday, February 18, 2008

Unreportable Warfare

This morning, about oil, I learned that if you burn the pools from an oil spill and seal off the hole in the earth, you have only made things worse. The burning releases fumes, vapors and toxins, and leaves a denser crude behind.

Still, this is a common method of clean up for many villages in Nigeria, according to a report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“The land is devastated. The drinking water and streams are polluted. As it rains, we use the rain water but cannot drink it, because even that is full of crude oil,” youth leader Amstel Monday Ebarakpor told IRIN.

“At every groundwater intrusion, you see seepage. Sometimes you can see oil sheen on drinking water,” he told IRIN. “Crude will be there for the next 50 years.”

Just to repeat: Sometimes you can see an oil sheen on the drinking water.

On 25 January the chairman of the government’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, Bamidele Ajakaiye, told Nigeria’s Senate Committee on Environment and Ecology that there are 1,150 abandoned oil spill sites in the Niger Delta region. Many, communities say, are cleaned like the one in Kedere - if at all.

There seem to be a lot of factors at work.

The largest is the growing unrest in that region. I've written about Nigeria before... Local people steal oil from pipelines to sell on the black market or to heat their homes -- as one would imagine, this is not a very safe practice. Also sabotage against the oil companies is occurring frequently as communities protest the discrepancy between what is being taken from the land and what is being given back to the people of the land. Also -- pipelines are really old. Also -- in the realm of things that are never reported -- doesn't it stand to reason that if the huge oil companies are responding to guerrilla style warfare that by killing and crippling the surrounding lands and people they would be engaging in their own warfare...

Unreportable warfare.

I noticed in the news coverage last year the language of the stories reported made the issue sound very much like a band of thieves and hooligans were set on messing things up for everyone. It concerned me then -- and then the coverage fell off all together. The UN report was picked up be Reuters, but I didn't see it in the Times, and a Google search didn't show it as appearing in any major newspaper.

President Bush will be traveling to Africa this month.

Posted today, on what looks to be a newsish site -- though I can't really decipher, because it's all in Portuguese (I think) -- is a letter to our President.

"Mr President:
Greetings from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) of Nigeria. We trust this letter will reach you and your entourage touring some African countries well.

MEND needs little introduction to you since you must have been briefed after the actions we have taken to address the injustice in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria may have affected the oil dependent American economy.

Your trip to Africa comes at an opportune time and indicates the soft spot you have for the people of this great continent. Africa is facing several on going conflicts, almost all are avoidable. Nigeria is at the verge of entering its own mega-conflict even though everyone seems to be in denial. When Nigeria erupts, the lava will spread so fast, far and wide that the human and economic catastrophe will dwarf Darfur."

The letter goes on to outline a proposal for action. It doesn't sound like the kind of letter I would be reading if I was president of the United States.

I wonder if President Bush will read this letter.

I wonder if oil is being used deliberately as chemical warfare.
But really, isn't it hard to imagine a group of pissed off American or European oil workers, hot and sick of being messed with, not saying...

Photo: Dulue Mbachu IRIN photo
Environmental damage from an oil spill in Kegbara-Dere in the Ogoni district of the Niger Delta. Residents say the spill is more than 10 years old and has not been cleaned up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ny times editorial

What Is an Oil Company, Anyway?

SOMETIMES I wish that the whole world celebrated a Teachers' Day. It would demonstrate our gratitude to the magnificent teachers we have had during our lives.

I think of Ms. Bratt, my third-year Latin teacher in high school, who had us all dress in togas and read Cicero's Catilinarian orations. I think of my great first-year Humanities and Contemporary Civilization teachers at Columbia, Mr. Fiering and Mr. Rothschild, and my disturbingly on-target teacher of Eastern European history, Mr. Rothstein.

And I especially think about my great economics teacher, C. Lowell Harriss. On the very first day of class, he changed my world view when he said, "Now, when I say 'corporate shareholders,' think 'widows and orphans.' "

This admonition comes to mind when I read the recent criticism of oil company profits. (I guess that the criticism is mostly of Exxon Mobil's profits; many other oil companies are not showing profit gains.) But when I hear representatives and senators speaking about the supposed wrongs of oil company behavior, I go back to my great Professor Harriss and think: "Wait a minute. These guys are asking us to punish oil companies. But what do they mean when they say 'oil company'?"

What is an oil company anyway? Consider Exxon Mobil, the largest domestic oil company and the largest stockholder-owned oil company in the world (though far smaller than many state-owned oil companies like Aramco or Pemex).

Exxon Mobil has about 85,000 employees. An overwhelming majority are working in oil fields producing oil, working in refineries making gasoline and heating oil from crude oil, shipping oil on large ships, taking orders for energy products, filling out forms, making sure machinery does not break down.

They are making sure that the computers are running, serving lunch in the cafeteria, writing speeches for the top executives, filling out medical care forms, driving vans. When Hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana, many of them took to their boats to help people and animals stranded in the high waters, then worked full time to get their refineries running again.

Are we angry at them? I can tell you, since I am close friends with a man who wrote speeches for a top executive, that they are not wildly well paid, particularly by Wall Street or Hollywood standards. Out of the 85,000, only a few earn more than a million dollars in salary a year, which is training-wheels pay for investment banks or big Hollywood talent agencies.

Are we angry at them for high oil profits? If so, why? All they are doing is providing us with our energy and our heat and our locomotion as well as they can at reasonable pay.

I have spent some time in this space talking about executives who reap millions from their companies while their employees suffer. That is not the case at oil companies, or at least not at Exxon Mobil. Its executives pay employees decently, take care of their medical bills even in retirement and do not drain hundreds of millions of dollars out of employee pay to make themselves rich. If the executives of Exxon Mobil become rich (and some do), they do it through long years of making the company profitable, not through vampirizing their employees.

Are we angry, then, at the owners of the oil companies? Maybe, but then it's self-hatred. Roughly 41 percent of Exxon Mobil stock is owned by retirement funds, private, public (federal, state and local) and individual retirement accounts. In other words, by us.

It is demonstrable that many retirement funds hold a great deal of oil stocks, including Exxon Mobil. Of the other owners, the largest holdings by far are at mutual funds and exchange-traded funds — generally vehicles for middle-class investors and retirees.

No individuals own more than 1 percent of the stock, and the largest single personal holding, representing far less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the company, is owned by Lee R. Raymond, the retired chief executive, who took the company through some very rough sailing to arrive at its present, fairly secure position.

ONE of the largest holders is the College Retirement Equities Fund, for higher-education teachers and others. Are we angry at them? If teachers get a bigger retirement because oil company profits are up, are we sad?

So, when gasoline and heating oil prices go up — prices that are set by the markets, not in the Exxon Mobil boardroom in Irving, Tex. — why are we angry at the schoolteachers and retired police officers who own Exxon Mobil and who can now buy new golf clubs?

We can be angry at "them" all we want, but it does not make a lot of sense because, at the end of the day, "them" is us. Or as Pogo Possum, a cartoon figure of the past, used to say, "We have met the enemy and he is us." And thank you again, Professor Harriss.

Ben Stein is a lawyer, writer, actor and economist. E-mail: