It is difficult to explain just how saddened I am by the news of yet another gasoline pipeline explosion in Nigeria. I am a little late to talk about it; the explosion happened on Friday, May 12.
Nigeria, which supplies the United States with about $70-100 million worth of oil each day, has a huge population of people that are so desperately poor that they often tap into gasoline pipelines and take as much fuel as they can carry away in jerry cans. There is some indication that these pipeline tappers sell a portion of the gasoline and keep some for use as a cooking fuel.
As you might imagine if you know much about gasoline, there are occasional infernos – possibly caused by random sparks in a vapor laden local area – that lead to rapid death of everyone in the immediate vicinity.
As far as I can tell from new reports, this activity is often a community project; when the explosions occur, the death tolls are generally in the hundreds. According to an article in Independent Online titled Corpses wash ashore after pipeline explosion there have been nearly 2,000 people killed in about a dozen different explosions since 1998.
Here is a rather distressing quote from a local government official that appeared in an Reuters article titled Nigeria pipeline blast kills up to 200 people:
“This is caused by hunger and greed. If you’ve got no job and you’re hungry you take advantage of anything to feed your family. Anyone who takes this kind of risk is desperate,” said Olanrewaju Saka-Shenayon, a Lagos State government official.
I do not know about you, but I find it very difficult to consider that someone who is hungry and poor enough to steal gasoline in a jerry can is motivated by “greed”. Even assuming that the person is in very good physical condition, it would be hard to carry more than a few dollars worth of gas. At today’s prices, the stuff is worth less than 50 cents per pound!
Contrast that picture of poverty with the quantities of money that are trading hands every day in the oil business, and you can understand why I am so sad. Our petroleum based economy has led to a situation where some people are fabulously wealthy (and believe that they have earned every penny) with hundreds of millions of dollars of personal assets (Lee Raymond’s recent $400 million dollar golden parachute from Exxon-Mobile is the most readily remembered example from the past week or so) and others are so poor that they risk their lives to tap gas pipelines and cart off a few dollars worth of flammable, carcinogenic liquid.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that petroleum is a wonderful gift and has led to billions of people leading far richer lives than anyone would have thought possible if they were considering the future from an 1850’s perspective. However, the disparity between rich and poor people associated with the same industry (remember, the pipeline tappers are natives of the same place on earth where the oil is found) is rather depressing.
Damn. I hope I find a more upbeat topic. This is a terrible way to start a Monday.