“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.”
It has been over two months now since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico, triggering what will surely be one of America’s greatest ecological disasters. Ever since the April 20th incident the focus – rightly – has been on BP’s stunning failure to stem the hundreds of millions of gallons of oil still pouring out of the broken pipeline. Yet given the scope of the tragedy, it is hard not to wonder how this would have played out if the oil well were in Asia. With far more limited resources, a less engaged government or a press unable or unwilling to document the unfolding events, the BP spill, awful though it is, might be drastically worse had it occurred in the South China Sea or Straits of Malacca.
As dire as the environmental impacts will be on the Gulf – and they may well be catastrophic – the wider implications of this disaster may be even graver. Despite the apparent inability of BP to plug the pipeline, the Obama administration has vast resources at its disposal for remediation of the spill. The Coast Guard, NOAA, EPA and many other U.S. government agencies have been thrown into the fight. Obama, in a much-debated move, compelled BP to set aside $20 billion for the cost of the cleanup and its long-term effects. The disaster has been squarely in the public eye since it began.
The measures the U.S. has brought to bear on the BP spill throws into sharp relief the measures taken to address similar disasters overseas. Put simply, few other nations could mount the response that America has and even among those nations capable, lack of political will to do so is a genuine concern. This is particularly true in the developing world. Holly Pattenden, an Africa oil analyst, put it simply: If this [the BP spill] were in the Niger Delta, no one would be batting an eyelid. They have these kind of oil spills in Nigeria all the time.” According to The Guardian, “more oil is spilled from the [Niger] delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The implications of this shocking disparity are twofold. The first, and wider one, pertains to climate change. As weather-related disasters increase worldwide, the BP spill should serve as a sharp reminder that the ability and the will to mitigate serious events are not always aligned. So not only will much of the developing world – large swathes of Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance – suffer from more frequent weather events, their remediation will be slow and likely out of the public eye. Where the intersection of extreme weather events and low confidence in the ability of government to address or prepare for these events coincides, threats to political stability are a genuine concern.
Secondly, the Gulf of Mexico disaster may not by the only one of its kind. Both China and Brazil, for instance, are pressing ahead with new deepwater drilling plans, even as the Deepwater Horizon event has shown the risks involved. As China’s CNOOC company presses forward for a deepwater natural gas well set to go online in 2011, energy executive Changlin Wu points out some of the risks: “The main engineering challenge is to lay out the pipeline on the sea floor. There are a lot of submarine valleys and the currents are pretty strong in the South China Sea.” Similarly, PBS report Margaret Warner, reporting from Brazil, notes that Brazil is pushing ahead with ultra-deep drilling operations with little re-evaluation of permitting or regulation, even after the BP spill. Should a similar event happen in waters off Brazil or China, would either country have the resources – or the political will – to mount the same response as the U.S.? Ultimately, as in the Gulf, local populations and vulnerable ecosystems would suffer the most.