For the last month, Americans have watched with growing horror as a huge leak on a BP oil rig has poured millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As I wrote on Sunday in the Week in Review section of The Times, there is also shock that technology has so far not been able to control it.
But it is important to remember that this mammoth polluting event, so extraordinary here, is not so unusual in some parts of the world. In an article published Sunday in The Guardian of London, John Vidal, the paper’s environment editor, movingly recalls a trip to the Niger Delta a few years ago, where he literally swam in “pools of light Nigerian crude.”
A network of decades-old pipes and oil extraction equipment in the delta has been plagued by serious leaks and spills. “More oil is spilled from the delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico,” he writes.
O.K., Nigeria may seem far away to most Americans. So what does this have to do with us?
Well, consider this: According to Mr. Vidal’s piece, the Niger Delta supplies 40 percent of all of the crude oil imported by the United States imports. Companies that drill in the area include BP, Shell and Exxon.
Here in the United States, people express outrage at BP’s actions in the gulf and demand that the oil giant behave responsibly in our waters. But should they also insist that oil companies behave well in the developing countries where their oil comes from? After all, many people insist on “fair trade” coffee and non-sweatshop clothing.
One more excerpt from Mr. Vidal’s fascinating article: “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.”
Diminishing returns: "OK. This ain't no big deal. This happens all the time in the rest of the world." So, the marginal damage of one more oil spill is lower than previous spills.
Increasing costs: "Crap. This is a big deal. This happens all the time in the rest of the world." So, the marginal cost of one more oil spill is higher than previous spills.