Oil, conflict & environmental destruction: A recap of oil extraction in the Niger Delta

20160625_MAM945.pngWith approximately 40 billion barrels of oil and an additional 5.3 trillion cubic meters of gas, Nigeria is one of the most oil and gas rich countries in the world. Currently only around 2.5 million barrels of oil are being produced per day but this number is set to increase dramatically. These reserves are located almost exclusively beneath the Niger Delta in the South of the country. (Chindo 2011)

The extraction of this oil started in the 1950s when Nigeria started giving licenses to oil companies worldwide due to a lack of own extraction capabilities. Today, there are six remaining foreign oil giants extracting Nigeria oil which include the likes of Shell, Exxon-mobil and Total. Shell is the largest exporter and accounts for around 50% of the total governmentally licensed oil extraction in Nigeria. The locals feel treated unfairly as these oil exporting companies don’t profit them personally. As a result, countless illegal oil extraction operations led by locals have appeared all over the Delta and various resistance groups that try to protect the interest of the Nigerian people formed. These groups include the MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) which linked up with transnational networks such as Amnesty International to increase the pressure on the government and Shell back in the 1990s. The MOSOP demanded a stop to the environmental destruction of the land, an increase of oil royalty payments and compensation of already done damages to the environment.(Obi, 2012) It turns out these efforts have now payed off and the Nigerian government is suing Shell and other oil giants for US$ 13 bn over illegal oil imports to the US

Due to militarisation of the oil extraction, resistance also turned increasingly towards violent measures causing a worrying, armed conflict within the country. Three different types of militias have been identified “in the Niger Delta: insurgent, deviant insurgent, and criminal armed groups.”(Obi, 2012) These different armed groups are involved in many activities ranging from the protection of illegal oil extraction and refining sites to criminal acts of self-enrichment and oil theft as well as many other political acts. One of the most extreme vigilante groups is the MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) which has been credited with several attacks on Shell’s flow stations, pipelines and oil platforms leading to a serious reduction in Nigeria’s oil output. According to Nigerian Finance Minister Okonjo-Iweala around 17% of Nigeria’s oil exports are lost to these resistance groups, amounting to 400.000 barrels per day which causes financial losses of approximately US$ 1.2 bn per month. In fact, in 2016 Nigeria had its lowest crude oil output in decades because of several attacks on pipelines. As a result most of the country was left without electricity for some time. In response to these frequent attacks, the Nigerian military tries to shut down as many illegal oil bunkering, extraction and refining sites as possible with the hope to reduce its losses. However, the increasing dispossession of the Nigerian people continues to fuel the conflict and is likely to reinforce the “local drive to resist tighter control of oil by the state oil-multinationals.”(Obi, 2012

There are many more issues associated with the oil production in Nigeria. Due to the need for the specific land for oil extraction, large areas of fertile farming land are lost and polluted for years to come. Furthermore, it is expected that increasing numbers of people will have to relocate to make space for oil extraction which is likely to lead to increased criminal activity.

In addition to the detrimental social impacts of these oil extraction operations comes an enormous amount of environmental devastation caused to the ecosystem of the Niger delta. Due to the relatively little advanced techniques of extraction and transportation as well as pipeline manipulations from vigilante groups and natural corrosion, vast amounts of oil are spilled on a daily basis by the large oil extracting companies in Nigeria. Large spillages like in 2011, when Shell spilled over 40.000 barrels of oil are no uncommon occurrence. Usually, these spills are without consequences unlike in this case, where Shell was sued for US$ 5 bn. The illegal oil industry arguable has an even larger negative environmental effect due to the primitive ways of oil refining and storage. Additionally, once these hidden illegal sites are located they are burned down together with the stored oil which poses further damage and danger to the environment as well as the local people. 

niger oilWith over 10 million barrels of oil spilled insidethe Niger Delta, it is unimaginable what damage has already been done to the environment. Abarikwu et al. determined through a health evaluation of different vegetable, snail and catfish species that heavy metal levels were above the allowed levels in almost all specimen. Surprisingly, by taking dietary patterns and hazard quotients into account the group determined that the risk for locals is still rather limited with only the consumption of fluted pumpkin resulting in dangerous levels of Lead. However, this danger could be amplified through the presence of other metals which makes it hard to evaluate the true risk. Due to the presence of different radioactive isotopes within the sands of the Niger Delta, there is also an additional carcinogenic risk after chronic exposure. 

There are many more issues associated with the oil production in Nigeria. Due to the need for the specific land for oil extraction, large areas of fertile farming land are lost and polluted for years to come. Furthermore, it is expected that increasing numbers of people will have to be relocated to make space for oil extraction which is likely to lead to increased criminal activity.


While, the oil production in Nigeria has also come with certain benefits like an improvement of infrastructure and social amenities, increased job opportunities and higher personal income as well as enhancement of local businesses, I still believe it is safe to say that the costs outweigh the benefits by large. Social division and environmental destruction from oil extraction and refining are amongst the most pressing issues Nigeria will have to face in the near future. If these remain unaddressed, Nigeria is likely to lose a large share of its biodiversity, fertile farming lands.

For some additional (visual) information have a look at this brand new VICE News documentary on the topic – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAgw_Zyznx0


Abarikwu SO, Essien EB, Iyede O-O, John K, Mgbudom-Okah C. Biomarkers of oxidative stress and health risk assessment of heavy metal contaminated aquatic and terrestrial organisms by oil extraction industry in Ogale, Nigeria. Chemosphere. 2017 [accessed 2018 Apr 11];185:412–422.

Adebiyi FM, Oyewole FG. Measurement of radioactivity level of sand fraction of Nigerian oil sands for environmental impact assessment. Energy Sources, Part A: Recovery, Utilization, and Environmental Effects. 2017 [accessed 2018 Apr 11];39(13):1435–1442.

Baird J. Oil’s Shame in Africa: In Nigeria, spills are weekly events. Newsweek. [accessed 2010 Jul 26];156(4).

Chindo MI. Communities Perceived Socio-economic Impacts of Oil Sands Extraction in Nigeria. Journal of Studies and Research in Human Geography. 2011 [accessed 2018 Apr 11];5(2):69–77.

Niger Delta Avengers: Here Is What The Conflict Is About. Nairametrics. 2017 May 30 [accessed 2018 Apr 11]. https://nairametrics.com/niger-delta-avengers-here-is-what-the-conflict-is-about/

Nigeria to sue global oil giants for illegal exports. The Economist Intelligence Unit. 2016 Oct 4 [accessed 2018 Apr 11]. http://www.eiu.com/industry/article/1664680750/nigeria-to-sue-global-oil-giants-for-illegal-exports/2016-10-04

Obi CI. Oil Extraction, Dispossession, Resistance, and Conflict in Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Niger Delta. Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue canadienne. 2010 [accessed 2018 Apr 11] ;30(1-2): 219-236

Ross W. Nigeria’s booming illegal oil refineries. BBC News. 2012 Jul 26 [accessed 2018 Apr 11]. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18973637


Map of Niger Delta –


Image of oil ‘lake’ –


Image of oil extraction site –


7 thoughts on “Oil, conflict & environmental destruction: A recap of oil extraction in the Niger Delta

  1. Thanks for this interested blog post! I didn’t know there were so many more problems in Nigeria all due to oil extraction. Do you perhaps know if something is done about this? As in, apart from the fines that are being given out, are there any environmental regulations in place? Or can the government maybe stop the licences for the international companies? I am just curious if there are some solutions to this rather complex problem.


  2. @auctamara, don’t you think that in this case, the government does not have a lot of interest in stoping the oil extraction? If I am right, the Nigerian government is very corrupted so that it is advantageous for the government to keep on going with the oil extraction despite the large negative externalities…


  3. @laurianenoi well it depends how you look at it. I personally feel that it would be beneficial to the government if they shift the licenses to national corporations, and tax them. That way the oil extraction can be controlled, the locals won’t feel disadvantaged anymore, less pollution will take place, plus the economy will get a boost. (Of course when talking about Climate Change oil is inherently bad). In real life this will be naturally way harder, because of corruption indeed. So when talking about interest, I think it really depends if you look at the short or long term… what do you think?


  4. @auctamara I totally agree with you! On a long term perspective, the government has a lot to gain! However, when we talk about politics, the time line is generally in the short-term: the government does not know if it will be elected the following years and in the case of corruption, it would rather just take as much money as possible while it is still elected. Apparently corruption is really high in Nigeria and it seems like there were protests from the ethnicity living close to the delta but (if I am right) nothing much change. So I totally agree that the government should look at the long term benefit of nationalising the oil corporation. However, I am not too sure how realistic this is, seeing the situation (that I do not know very well I have to admit!).


  5. @laurianenoi that is definitely a good point. Maybe I am then a bit of a hopeless optimist… I am not an expert on politics at all, but am wondering if the fines will help. Especially when the government is this corrupt, the oil corporations can just continue their business after paying off the right people. Maybe an international approach would be better then. But then again, there is not much what you can do against such a large corporation on intergovernmental levels….


  6. @auctamara, I think you got a good point here, international help would be a good idea, I don’t know what kind of organisation could have such a power, but that is worth investigating (I think) 🙂


  7. @auctamara I agree with the both of you that investing into local oil extraction companies would be beneficial for the country and indeed help with the conflict created by the unfair treatment of locals. As far as I understand there is many underlying issues with making a change towards local oil extraction companies. Corruption likely played an important role but now that Shell and other oil companies are licensed to extract oil on Nigerian soil, I believe there is many legal issues involved that prevent the government from getting rid of these companies. Since local extraction techniques are inefficient, they can’t outcompete Shell etc. either, which makes a transition very unlikely in the near future. In one of the papers I read on this topic, they discussed that the illegal refining used to be relatively uncommon up until some payments from the government to the local people were cut. I think if they government reintroduced these payments and basically share the oil money with the locals,
    in return for the shutdown of illegal oil refineries a lot could be done in terms of preserving the environment and improving the conflict within the country. However, to completely eradicate the problem certainly much outside help would be required

    Liked by 2 people

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