Over recent decades, civil society actors in many countries running on oil, so to speak, have pushed oil companies to halt their activities and clean up the mess they’ve made. In Peru, Ecuador, and Nigeria, indigenous communities have engaged or sued oil companies to try to force them to either clean up oil spills or to provide compensation for the damage to their territory. Long-term lessons learned from the cleaning up the 1978 oil spill in Brittany, France can help us anticipate the challenges that lie ahead as the number of incidents increase. As this oil spill that took place over 40 years ago shows, it is next to impossible to return an environment destroyed by oil to its original state. Alternatives, then, should be found to compensate communities that have been affected by our oil addiction, and the long-term rehabilitation of the affected areas should be a top priority.
It has been estimated that, over the last five decades, approximately 9 to 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger Delta region in Nigeria. For the northeastern Ecuadorian Amazon alone, between 2011 and 2014, the equivalent of around seven million barrels of crude oil was spilled in 464 events. And in a report by Oxfam and Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos published last year, it was estimated that 474 oil spills had occurred between 2019 and 2020 along the Norperuano pipeline in Peru. It has also been estimated that over the course of eight years, between 1972 and 2017, around three billion barrels of toxic waste associated with oil production were leaked into the Amazon in northern Peru.
Impacted oil communities worldwide have sought compensation for the damage caused to their environment by oil extraction and transport processes and to force the cleaning up of spills. In 2012, in the Niger Delta, the Bodo community filed a lawsuit against Shell in a London high court. Following this lawsuit, in 2015 Shell agreed to a £55 million settlement to compensate the community for the harm incurred. Similarly, in 2008, three Nigerian villages sued Shell as a Dutch company in a Dutch court of law, while in 2014 the Peruvian government was forced by a Peruvian court to respond to the oil spill health crisis. And in Ecuador, early last year indigenous people living along the Ecuador’s northern Amazon pipeline launched a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government and private and state oil companies operating in the area to provide compensation. This increase in lawsuits filed by indigenous communities against large companies that extract oil in countries in the Global South is a welcome first step. Yet compensation is too little, too late. Once the damage has been done, it is irreversible.
Walking along the northern coasts of Brittany reminds me of the impossibility of ever fully cleaning up oil spills. A story is told in my family of my uncle and aunt opening the shutters of their house at Portsall in Brittany early in the morning of the 17 March 1978 when the smell of oil hit them, immediately telling them that what they had feared for decades had finally happened. The Amoco Cadiz, on its way to Rotterdam, had run aground the previous day. In the following days, it spilled 223,000 litres of light crude oil and an additional 4,000 litres of bunker oil on a stretch of coastline of more than 300 kilometres. To this date it is the fifth-largest oil tanker accident in history. And the worst of all is that the tragedy could have been avoided: during its construction, it was known that the tanker had a leak that needed to be fixed, but the repair was postponed several times as delivering oil was prioritized and costs cut. The storm on the English Channel on the 16 March 1978 got the better of it, and environmental destruction ensued.
In the days following the spill, coastal communities themselves began the arduous process of cleaning up, scraping up the ‘chocolate mousse’ that the emulsification of oil and water was forming on the beaches. The scale of the disaster required the army to be recruited to help the local population clean up, and 300 students volunteered to collect the dead birds, which numbered in their thousands.
Fourteen years after the spill, in 1992, a US court ordered Amoco and Shell, who were responsible for the spill, to pay US$200 million in damages to the French government. The damages covered some of the economic costs of the clean-up, but the court denied claims for compensation for ecological destruction and losses. It has been estimated that these damages covered only 19% of the total environmental and economic costs of the oil spill. Half of the money simply helped pay for the trial in the US. The damage was far worse than anticipated, and the compensation helped get the oil off the tip of the iceberg, leaving the rest of it submerged.
Walking along these beaches since the spill occurred many years ago shows that the word ‘clean-up’ is a misnomer. In the first decades, it was impossible to go even a short distance on the beaches without coming across balls of oil in the sand and patches of oil slicking the rocks or a layer of oily residue thirty centimetres deep in the sand along the whole length of the beach. Nowadays, these obvious signs of the spills have only partly disappeared. The spill has had long-term consequences. It resulted in the largest loss of marine life ever recorded. Even today, sea life has still not entirely recovered from the long-term consequences of the toxicity of the oil, but also from products such as dissolvents that were used to disperse and sink the oil during the cleaning process. Sightings of oil have also not disappeared. On the more remote islands, there are still layers of oil residue under the sand and oil still slicks the rocks and pebbles on some beaches. The oil can be traced back to the Amoco Cadiz by DNA testing.
The most controversial topic though is the fate of the ‘chocolate mousse’. In the initial rush to clean up the oil slick, the oil recovered was buried in landfills, particularly in dunes along the coast. Forty years later and with erosion due to climate change, there is a fear that oil could again leak from these sites into the coastal environment. This secondary oil spill could be equally devastating.
The Amoco Cadiz spill gives us a small-scale snapshot of the titanic challenges of cleaning up oil spills. But the spill in Brittany is dwarfed by the scale of oil pollution in the Niger Delta, Ecuador, Peru and many other oil extraction sites. Every year since oil extraction began in the Niger Delta, an average of four times more oil than the Brittany oil spill has been spilled from terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms in the area. The scale of oil spills is thus only increasing, and companies are still not taking responsibility.
While clean-up initiatives are absolutely needed, they fall short in meeting the challenges of repairing the damage caused. Forty years after the ‘clean up’ of the Amoco Cadiz oil spill, the shores of Brittany attest to our collective failure to manage the consequences of our addiction to oil: they remain polluted and may be considered permanently damaged. There is arguably a lack of capacity, whether financial or technological, to fully restore polluted sites. We need to find other ways to fix the zones that have been sacrificed during decades of oil exploitation, and financial compensation is just the start.