Shell's Nigeria oil spill gets muted response

LONDON Fri Dec 23, 2011 1:41pm EST

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LONDON (Reuters) - Royal Dutch Shell's Nigerian oil spill, the largest in the African nation since 1998, highlights the different world responses to oil spills.

Nigerian authorities on Thursday put emergency measures in place to prevent the spill of less than 40,000 barrels from the Shell facility, the biggest leak in Nigeria for more than 13 years, washing up on its coast.

The spill is small compared to last year's much documented rupture of BP's Macondo well off the United States but critics say the fact it happened in Nigeria means little attention has been paid to it.

In comparison, BP's Macondo disaster spilled nearly 5 million barrels in the Gulf of Mexico, sparked criticism of the company by politicians, a media frenzy and wiped billions off its market value.

"There are double standards operating. With the Deepwater Horizon spill last year there was a massive amount of interest," said Paul Horsman, a spokesman for Greenpeace, the environmental group. "The reality is, where ever the oil industry operates, it creates havoc."

Shell's shares briefly declined on Wednesday when news of the spill from the Bonga oilfield 120 kilometers off Nigeria's coast emerged, but have since risen as investors saw little reputational risk for Shell.

An oil analyst at a bank said Shell's latest Nigerian spill was unlikely to have much of an impact on the company.

"They are cleaning it up and the authorities seem very supportive of what's happening," he said. "This is not the worst incident."

Shell's pipelines in Nigeria's onshore Niger Delta spill often, and the company usually blames this on sabotage attacks and oil theft, though it did not in this case.

On its website, Shell says almost 30,000 barrels spilled from the operations of its Nigerian venture in 2010 and there were more than 150 separate spills.

It said "less than 40,000 barrels of oil" had leaked into the ocean in the latest spill, equal to almost 6.4 million liters.

Nigeria's National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency put the spill at 20,000 barrels on Thursday and said it was the biggest in Nigeria since 1998, when some 40,000 barrels leaked from a ruptured Mobil pipeline off the coast.

POLLUTION IN THE NIGER DELTA

The latest spill comes four months after a U.N. report criticized Shell and the Nigerian government for contributing to 50 years of pollution in a region of the Niger Delta which it says needs the world's largest ever oil clean-up, costing an initial $1 billion and taking up to 30 years.

Shell's global website includes a prominent link to updates on the spill and photographs taken at the site, including of a damaged export line at Bonga identified as the source of the leak.

In an update on Thursday, Shell said an oil sheen on the ocean's surface had thinned due to a combination of natural factors and the use of dispersant. Five ships were applying dispersant and more equipment and vessels are being mobilized.

"Since Tuesday, when we became aware of this regrettable leak at our Bonga offshore facility, substantial progress has been made in mitigating the consequences," Shell's chairman in Nigeria, Mutiu Sunmonu, said.

(Editing by James Jukwey)

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