May 22, 2007

At the mercy of Nigerians

(Opinion) Tuesday, 22 May 2007, 01:00 PST
by -- Associate news editor Rodney Venis
The gunmen of the Niger Delta believe in strange magic.

They wear amulets that protect them from bullets and leaves that make their enemies see trees rather than men. Their leaders are chosen by Egbesu, the Ijaw god of war, who appears to them in visions, sometimes daily. They're convinced, according to Vanity Fair, they can drink battery acid.

Their most terrible power, however, is all too real: they can reach into pretty much every wallet, purse and bank account in the world whenever they want.

That's because, even if they consider AC/Delco's finest a light aperitif, the militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) are all too clearheaded when it comes to oil.

They don't need to be geniuses. The world needs to work flat out to produce 84 million barrels of oil a day to fuel its needs; a shortfall, for any reason, of two million barrels in that period can send prices up to $80 a barrel. The militants make their home in a region that produces a very special brand of oil -- so-called light sweet crude, which doesn't strain the world's already maxed-out refineries too much -- at a maximum rate of three million barrels a day.

MEND knows how much everyone loves oil -- and it knows the ill-equipped, corrupt Nigerian army can't protect the thousands of miles of pipeline and the hundreds of oil fields and facilities that crisscross the African nation. So, whenever it feels like making everyone right down to a poor Prince George motorist pay 20, 30, 40 dollars more for gas, a couple of guys grab their guns, fuel up the speedboat and head out to screw with the Dow Jones.

They're not picky -- they'll kidnap a few foreign workers, rob a bank, assault an oil derrick, blow something up, assassinate an oil company executive, and then disappear into the delta's mangrove swamps, knowing CNN will be covering it two hours later, sending ripples through the global economy. What's even more maddening is they're not even jerks or nut cases, despite the battery acid. Prince George residents can't understand why having a Husky refinery won't cut them a break on a fill-up; Nigerians living in villages wonder why they're cursed to live a country so rich in oil, it's killed off the fish they eat, poisoned the water they drink, polluted their government with billions of ill-gotten dollars and left them with no schools, medical care, or jobs.

Heck, one village doesn't even have electricity for days at time while, a chain-link fence away, a Shell compound keeps its tennis court and golf course lit all night. As MEND's mysterious spokesman, Jomo Gbomo told one journalist, "We're not communists or even revolutionaries. We're just extremely bitter men."

And thank goodness they haven't snapped yet, even though they've managed recently to cut Nigeria's oil production by a third. One big strike -- one expert worries they could take out the country's Bonny Island Liquid Natural Gas Plant with a simple shoulder-launched rocket -- could drive the already fed-up oil companies from at least part of the country for good.

That could send oil prices to $80 a barrel. Painful, for sure, but far more dangerous would be how even more constrained petroleum supplies would get. There wouldn't be anything else MEND could do, really, but some other little piece of joy -- a terrorist attack in Saudia Arabia, a maintenance-starved pipeline bursting in North America -- and it's just a short wave of panic to $120 a barrel territory.

The U.S. economy can't handle that price -- which means everybody, China, Europe, Canada, loses.

It's funny, though. Those opposed to ending Canada's dependency on oil say shifting to a more efficient, more eco-friendly economy will spell disaster. It's madness, risky madness, they cry -- we can't let the hippies win when what we're doing now is working so well and making us all so rich.

Which is fine. But if what we're doing now is so wonderful, then how come the entire world can be held hostage by a handful of angry men in a speedboat?

-- Associate news editor Rodney Venis

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