Skip Navigation

The Onus Is on Big Oil

Image via Andrew Esiebo for The Washington Post

Chevron Corporation, an American petroleum refineries company, recently launched the sale process for a web of its oil and gas assets in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Interestingly, this is not a singular event, but rather a pattern. In the recent past, the multinational energy corporation has begun to sell its stakes in oil fields across much of Africa. Two years ago, Chevron divested its 40 percent equity held in Nigerian Oil Mining Leases (OMLs) 86 and 88, and the company is now reportedly looking to dispose of three oil and gas fields in Equatorial Guinea that it acquired in 2020.

Chevron is not alone—many international oil companies (IOCs) have participated in this scramble to rid themselves of African oil and gas assets. In August 2021, the British energy corporation Shell PLC divested “all of its operated joint venture licenses” in Nigeria, including its fierce 30 percent interest in the country’s 19 OMLs. Less than six months later, TotalEnergies—a French petroleum company in partnership with the Japanese Inpex Corp—announced the sale of their 100 percent stake in Angola’s Block 14 B.V. ExxonMobil was next: The multinational natural gas company headquartered in Houston carried out a $407 million sale of its assets in Chad and Cameroon in December 2022. To explain this divestment scurry, international corporations offer identical explanations that cite environmentalism but, in reality, cause more harm to the African environment.

We are told that oil executives have “embarked on [a wave of sales]” to meet pledges to decrease carbon emissions. Chevron and Shell are among other IOCs that, under pressure from investors and governmental actors, made assurances to reach net zero operational emissions by 2050 and transition toward “low carbon business.” Unfortunately for Africa, business on the continent is especially incompatible with these new corporate climate policies: Oil fields in the Niger Delta, for example, had the most elevated emissions in Shell’s portfolio due to “aging infrastructure, under-investment, vandalism, continued flaring and the harsh operating conditions.” So, to maintain the Niger Delta would be incongruous with Shell’s efforts to achieve more environmentally friendly oil production. As such, multinational corporations have left Africa behind and turned instead to oil assets in places that will yield lower emissions, like Kazakhstan in Chevron’s case and Guyana for ExxonMobil.

According to the London School of Economics, divestment from Africa oil will likely harm the region’s coastal and marine ecosystems, ultimately increasing greenhouse gas emissions. This is because local oil and gas corporations, forced to take over operations, “lack the sustainability practices, environmental commitments, and reporting standards the multinationals have.” In Nigeria, where divestments have reached $1.1 billion since 2020, all but one sale involved a transfer from an IOC to a local oil firm. Because of this, the country has fallen victim to immense environmental setbacks in the recent past. For example, Nigeria has encountered a spike in greenhouse gas emissions, catalyzed by gas flaring, since the acquisition of oil licenses by local corporations. 

Take Heirs Holdings, a Nigerian firm that observed an “eightfold surge in [gas] flaring” following its purchase of an asset formerly owned by Shell. Or Aieto, another Nigerian company that left a well explosion unattended for a month, spilling at least 500,000 barrels of oil and gas. The disastrous explosion occurred soon after it took over an oil field in the Niger Delta community of Nembe—an asset also previously owned by Shell. There is clearly significant environmental damage caused by local firms’ ownership of oil assets. This conclusion is echoed by the Stakeholder Democracy Network, which identified that “Nigerian companies are responsible for 35 percent more oil spills [than] international companies.”

I do not oppose the principle of African oil assets being controlled by African companies—quite the contrary. Foreign powers have long used oil to influence and control Africa. In 2003, American corporations owned $30 billion worth of oil and gas projects on the continent. Now, two decades later, Africans are spectators to the exit of Big Oil. And for many, there is a sense of eagerness to claim what is rightfully theirs. That is to say that myself and the residents of Nembe are joyous to see “our brothers in control.” 

Alas, it turns out that local African firms are not ready—whether they want to be or not—to safeguard their own environment. As put by a fisherman in Nembe, Lambert Ogbari, “[After IOCs departed, life] has gone from bad to worse.” But I believe that the onus is on Big Oil. Fifteen-year-old firms like Aiteo do not have the financial muscle to maximize oil production, compete with international oil companies, and implement environmentally friendly provisions. Big Oil must remediate the environments it has exploited for decades. If it cares about the climate as it claims to, that is.

International divestment from African oil has not benefited the environment. Instead, petroleum from oil spills seeps into wetland farming areas, open flames from gas flaring are released near towns, and ecosystems are wrecked in the name of oil exploration. All the while, Big Oil senior executives trumpet their climate policies to appease partners in the West. As Nigerian activist Ken Henshaw states, “[Shell]’s red-and-yellow logo can be substituted with something green and leafy,” but African communities will continue to disintegrate. In this, the onus is on Big Oil.