An interview on oil politics in the Niger Delta

A few years ago, I was asked for an interview for a narrative non-fiction book, The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. I recently realized that I hadn’t yet shared it here, so the unedited transcript is below. The interview is part of my commitment to making understandings about Africa more accessible to those outside academia. Everyone should have an opportunity to increase their knowledge about a complex region so vital to our understanding of history, economics, and world politics.

The Impact of Oil – Niger Delta, Nigeria

THE IMPACT OF OIL

Niger Delta, Nigeria

An interview with Laine Strutton, interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Law & Society at New York University

OFF TO THE DELTA: I first arrived in Nigeria with nothing more than an out-of-date guidebook and my backpack. I was halfway through my PhD when I began to focus on this country, and I decided to write my dissertation on the Niger Delta oil conflict. During several months of my own field research there, I waded through toxic rivers and shared a canoe with crocodile.

EFFECTS ON THE ENVIRONMENT: Since oil was first commercially drilled in the delta in 1958, there has been virtually no oversight of its environmental impact by oil companies or the government, and spills are an immense problem. After the BP and Deep Water Horizon accident of 2010, I heard several claims that the same quantity of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico in just that one spill has slowly been released dozens of times in the Niger Delta. Unfortunately, most people don’t pay as much attention to the spills in Nigeria because they occur slowly over time, due to eroding pipelines and tampering, as opposed to the singular, dramatic, large-scale accidents that you hear about in the media. While offshore spills from oil rigs are certainly concerning for the local communities of this region, onshore leaking and exploding pipelines are just as problematic because they poison the rivers from which community members fish and the land that they farm. If you wade in the many rivers in the Niger Delta you can see the oil floating on the top of the water and dead fish washed up on the riverbanks. There are few sources of clean water in the Delta, so thousands of women end up using polluted river water to cook for their families, wash dishes, and bathe their children. Communities are also breathing in toxic gas flares that have been burning for years.

HEALTH: It is extremely difficult to study the health impacts of environmental damage. Logistically, the Niger Delta has few roads and most rural community members travel by canoe, which would be challenging for a team of health researchers with equipment. Such researchers would rarely have access to electricity and would need to bring along most of their own food and water. Secondly, it is not an easy region for outsiders, particularly foreigners, because there are serious problems with robbery, kidnappings for ransom, and more. Even if these challenges were overcome, so many other factors there would make it problematic to identify environmental damage as the sole cause of certain health problems. For example, the Niger Delta has an extremely high infant mortality rate. Although that could be due to, for example, babies and pregnant women consuming oil-polluted water, the water could also be harmful in other ways—a lack of indoor plumbing in homes or waste seepage into shared water. On further speculation, the infant mortality rate could result from nutrition issues, lack of prenatal and postnatal care, unidentified genetic birth defects, or anything else. So, any study certainly could yield a correlation between oil spills and health problems, but proving causality would be complicated because there would be so many other variables to take into consideration.

DIVIDED RESPONSIBILITY: I would say that the average Niger Deltan community member would identify the foreign oil companies, the largest one being Shell, as the main culprit of conflict and pollution. They see the oil company vehicles on the roads, they may have passed the guarded compounds where companies house their employees, and they see the logos on oil equipment. The companies are clearly outsiders, so an “us versus them” mentality easily arises. However, in my longer discussions with both individuals and groups, the issue of government accountability also came up. For example, one could argue whether the nature of capitalism does not require companies to be morally accountable in the same way that democracy requires governments to be morally accountable. The primary function of corporations is to make profit, but the primary function of governments is, simply put, to stop bad things from happening to their citizens. But, Niger Deltans know that the federal government, in conjunction with foreign oil companies, is enjoying immense oil profits—yet the people themselves live without electricity, clean water, reliable roads, access to hospitals, and funded schools. They wonder among themselves, “Where is all the money from oil going?” People are frustrated and angry that government representatives, or others who they call “Big Men,” are not engaged in economic development at the local level. They feel that such development is particularly important because of how oil activities have negatively impacted their traditional forms of livelihood. There is a sense that the government and oil companies together should offer some type of compensation for the environmental destruction that now hinders local economies.

WOMEN AND MOBILIZATION: I became interested in women’s resistance to the Niger Delta oil industry because it seems to have emerged quite suddenly, although women’s protests in West Africa are certainly not new. After Nigeria’s transition to democracy there was a spat of female-led marches and sit- ins against oil companies in the Rivers and Delta State, starting in 2002. The biggest protest occurred at Chevron’s Escravos oil terminal for ten days that July. For the first time on such a massive scale, some 600 Itsekiri women of the Niger Delta staged an anti-oil occupation of the extraction site. They made claims against Chevron and the government, alleging illegal appropriation of property, broken economic- development contracts, and environmental damage caused by oil spills and gas flares. It received a lot of media coverage because during the occupation the women exposed their bare bodies to shame male officials with the “curse of nakedness.” Behind the curse, there is a belief that the breasts of a mother are sacred and that showing them to a man in protest is like saying, “Look, I gave you life from these breasts so you must listen to me.” In some places in West Africa they say that seeing the bare chest of a mother can make a man go crazy or blind. An employee who was there during the Escravos takeover also said that women had left symbolic branches and leaves on the oil equipment to curse the company. This occupation immediately inspired additional takeovers, which involved over a thousand women at six different sites. Away from the oil terminals, female vendors in the region responded to the call for anti-oil action by closing their market stalls and cutting off urban food supplies near extraction sites. Male workers joined in the occupations with their own labor stoppages and women forced out unionized workers who had refused to strike. It is significant to note that men sometimes liked to bring women into marches because soldiers and police are less likely to use force if women are involved. There is a strong cultural taboo against using public violence against women, especially older ones, so women may march in front of men to act as a buffer.

WHAT WOMEN WANT: These protesting women had communal and sometimes nonspecific demands. First and foremost, they wanted jobs for their husbands and sons. Aside from that, most told me that they wanted the companies or government to provide electricity, water, and roads, as well as build schools and hospitals. To a lesser extent, they also were asking for the company to clean up the environment so that they could continue fishing and farming (although by some scientific assessments the Niger Delta ecosystem may not fully recover in our lifetimes). The more ardent protesters, specifically the Ogonis who followed Saro-Wiwa, said that if companies can’t do these things then they should leave Nigeria altogether.

THE CHIEFS: There are chiefs of varying levels of power in the Niger Delta, from a low clan chief to the kingdom chief, and they are powerful enough that I could not enter a village without paying a visit to at least the local chief if not also those above him. In the first community I visited, a local taxi driver called ahead to tell the chief I was coming. I then had to show up with kai kai, or locally distilled liquor, as my offering. I sat in the chief’s living room as he and his men asked me questions about why I wanted to walk through his community and what my financial stake was there. After explaining that I just wanted to gather field data, he poured a capful of kai kai over the threshold of his front door and sang incantations to the spirit in the local language, Ogoni. This means he prayed to the ancestors for my safety during my time there. Then we drank the kai kai together, meaning that I had his permission to be there. He sent out word to community members that it was all right with him that they talk to me. I then had to repeat this kai kai ceremony at several other higher chief’s palaces until the king said that I didn’t need to see anyone higher than him. This was all very important to gaining access because as such a clear outsider, community members would have been very suspicious of me talking with them.

A COMPLEX REALITY: Something that’s interesting is that my conversations in the field about oil protests indicated that local chiefs had a heavy hand in instigating these demonstrations. In rural areas, the law of a chief is far more powerful than that of the government, and as my interviewees said, “Chief’s law goes.” In many instances the chief sent a town crier through the community announcing the day and location of the march. A protest may serve the chief’s interest as much as the community members’ because he may be rewarded by the company or the government for ending the demonstration and for keeping the peace. Also, if the company or the state offers concessions, such as funding for social amenities, those funds are going to be controlled by the chief. In this sense, whether the women or other protesters succeed or fail, the chief may benefit. Since these leaders hold so much power in daily life, it isn’t necessarily surprising that those same power dynamics would be reproduced in the social movement. So essentially, I went to Nigeria looking for a story of increased political and rights activity among the women, but what I found was far more complex.

Dissertation on Niger Delta women and the oil movement published

My dissertation is available online. If you are unable to access it because you are outside the academic network, please feel free to contact me for a copy. I am an avid supporter of open, author-permitted access to publications.

ABSTRACT:

Since the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta in 1958, there has been an ongoing low-level conflict among foreign oil companies, the federal government, and rural community members in southern Nigeria. Armed insurgents and small cadres of male protesters have resisted oil activities, demanding environmental cleanup, employment, and local compensation for extractive operations. In 2002, however, large groups of women began engaging in peaceful protests against oil companies and the state, making the same demands as men. Current work describes these women as coming together autonomously to assert their rights in the face of corporation exploitation.  This project challenges such accounts and investigates how common perceptions of law and politics inform women’s role in the oil reform movement.

Employing constructivist grounded theory, this dissertation argues that women’s protests were largely a product of local elite male politicking among oil companies and federal and state governments. The first finding is that local chiefs, acting as brokers engaging in “positional arbitrage,” urge women to protest because it reinforces their own traditional rule.  In this sense, women have not implemented new tactics in the movement but instead are the new tactics. Secondly, Niger Delta women see law as innately good but identify individuals as the corrupting force that thwarts law’s potential for positive change. Women also perceive a binary between local and state law, thus allowing chiefs to act as gatekeepers between women and the state. As a qualitative case study, the project uses in-depth interviews, direct observations, and archival documentation to analyze a series of all-female demonstrations that occurred around oil extraction sites in Rivers State from 2002-2012. Ultimately, these findings welcome a more critical look at social movements by identifying ways in which apparent episodes of resistance may actually be reconfigurations of existing power arrangements.

Methodology:

 

 

grounded theory

For a link to my final dissertation, please see:

http://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/1666393541.html?FMT=ABS

Ethics in Journalism about Africa

Westerners trying to transmit information and facts from Africa to the rest of the world is messy. It was an ongoing challenge for me as a researcher, and I can only imagine how exaggerated those challenges must be for a reporter with a deadline. There are too many stories that deserve coverage and simply not enough Africanists to cover them all. The economics of journalism require stories that are immediate and sensational enough to capture attention (and sell). Language and cultural barriers are immeasurable when securing both sources and geographic sites that can be accessed comparably safely. Despite these issues, news from Africa deserves the same stringent standards as any piece out of the West. It just requires more work.

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Foreign Policy‘s Laura Seay wrote a penetrating piece, “How to Not Write About Africa.” It made me think about the lens through which I consume news about Africa. Here is her take:

“It’s hard out here for us old Africa hands. We are desperate to see more coverage of important stories from the continent and for our neighbors to become more educated about the places where we study and work. Yet when we get that coverage, it tends to make us cringe.

Take, for instance, the current violence in northern Mali. In the last six weeks, Mali has experienced a coup d’état and a declaration of independence from rebels who now loosely control half its territory. The recent conflict has displaced approximately 268,000 people as various groups of Islamists and separatist rebels jostle for control of desert oasis cities as a drought-driven food crisis looms with the arrival of the country’s hot season. The situation in Mali is by far the worst unfolding humanitarian crisis in the world today, but compared with say, Syria or Afghanistan, you probably haven’t heard much about it.

Or consider the flurry of coverage of Central Africa that followed March’s “Kony 2012” phenomenon. First of all, it is frustrating that it takes a viral Internet video or the involvement of Hollywood celebrities to bring attention to the depredations of groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army. Even worse, many Africa correspondents file stories that fall prey to pernicious stereotypes and tropes that dehumanize Africans. Mainstream news outlets frequently run stories under headlines like “Land of Mangoes and Joseph Kony,” seemingly without thinking how condescending and racist such framing sounds.

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Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for “Congo” and “heart of darkness”yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticize the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?

To Africa-watchers, there is a clear double standard for journalistic quality, integrity, and ethics when it comes to reporting on the continent. It’s enough to make us want to scream, or at least crawl into a corner and long for the days when Howard French covered West and Central Africa for the New York Times. Although he had to cover some of the continent’s worst post-Cold War violence, French’s mid-1990s reporting for the Times was nuanced and balanced, and reflected the reality of Africa as a place that is not simply a land of war and poverty, but rather a complex system of societies like any others filled with normal people doing their best to make a life.

Why is there so much bad reporting on Africa? Part of the problem has to do with the limited number of journalists assigned to cover the continent. Many major Western media outlets assign one correspondent for the entire continent — more than 11 million square miles. He or she will be based in Johannesburg or Nairobi, but be expected to parachute into Niger, Somalia, or wherever the next crisis is unfolding, on a moment’s notice. At best, larger publications will have two or three regional Africa correspondents who are each responsible for covering 10 to 15 countries. The wire services tend to have broader reach, but even they cannot station a correspondent in every country.

This is insane. Africa is a continent of 54 distinct states, all with multiple languages and ethnic groups and unique political dynamics. Nowhere else in the world — not even in undercovered Latin America — would one person be expected to report on so many complicated situations. Yet in Western media coverage of Africa, such a state of affairs is common. It could be argued that these limits are the product of declining revenues for traditional media outlets in the age of the Internet. It is true that foreign correspondents are expensive and revenues are down, but that ignores the fact that Western media coverage of Africa has always been done this way. Twenty years ago, most major Western media outlets also only had one to three Africa correspondents. Very little has changed.

There is an easy solution to this problem: Hire local reporters. One notable exception to the history of poor coverage of Africa is the BBC, whose World Service has long maintained correspondents in most of the continent’s capital cities. Although the World Service’s budget has been slashed repeatedly due to declining government support, the BBC has managed to keep much of its Africa coverage afloat by relying largely on local reporters to get the story. This has been particularly important in Somalia. For two decades, it has been nearly impossible for Western reporters to fully and freely report from Somalia due to safety concerns, but the BBC Somali Service’s team of local correspondents and producers do an excellent job of getting the news out from their own country. There’s no reason that other major media providers couldn’t hire local reporters to improve their coverage as well. Rather than relegating them to second-tier or co-author status, why not hire Africans as country or regional correspondents? A reporter does not have to be Caucasian to provide objective and well-written reporting from the continent, and in many cases, this reporting is more nuanced than that of an international correspondent who spends five days reporting a story. For example, by far the most thoughtful reporting and analysis on Ugandan reactions to the Kony 2012 viral video came not from American journalists, but from Ugandan reporter Angelo Izama who, to the New York Times‘ credit, was able to publish an opinion article in its pages. Why can’t the Times hire Izama or someone equally qualified to report on Uganda full time?

Hiring local reporters also addresses the problem of language barriers, another key reason so much reporting on Africa is so bad. This is evident in the Anglophone-Francophone divide: Coverage of the Mali crisis by outlets such as Agence France-Presse and France 24 has been considerably better than that of much of the English-language media. They had the best information from the battlefront and were able to interview non-Anglophone Malians with ease. The problem is not simply that reporters cannot be expected to speak all of Africa’s 3,000-plus languages; it is that foreign correspondents tend to rely on the same small group of fixers to arrange interviews, interpret, and manage logistics.

Yet fixers tend to take reporters to talk to the same subjects, over and over and over again. An echo chamber often results, as the same interviews are done with essentially the same questions and the same answers. The echo-chamber problem is much worse in conflict zones, where NGOs often arrange safe travel for reporters in a bid to get their stories out (and to raise funds for their humanitarian operations). Given the challenges of reporting in the midst of open conflict, this symbiotic relationship works well for both parties: The journalist gets the story, and the NGO gets good press for its campaign.

The problem is that this tends to produce very one-sided and nonobjective reporting. For example, much of the recent coverage of the conflict in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains has been facilitated by the U.S.-based NGO Samaritan’s Purse. Many of the reporters traveling with Samaritan’s Purse have used the same fixer for their stories, Ryan Boyette, a former employee of the group who is married to a Nuba woman and runs a local effort to document atrocities occurring there. In the space of just a few weeks, Boyette also became the subject of a fawning New York Times profile by Nicholas Kristof, was a centerpiece of Jeffrey Gettleman’s reporting for the same publication, and was interviewed by Ann Curry for NBC’s Today. This is not to question Boyette’s credibility or challenge his analysis (though he is far from a neutral observer), but rather to point out one of many examples of the way the West’s Africa reporting becomes biased due to a lack of access and local language skills. As Karen Rothmyer noted in a Columbia Journalism Review article, many reporters working on Africa rely “heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories, and sources.” It is thus no wonder that much reporting on Africa is so heavily focused on crises and that many pieces read like little more than NGO promotional materials.

Another major issue many Africa hands have with media coverage of the continent is the lack of journalistic ethics employed by some reporters working in the continent. Standards for the depiction and identification of victims of conflict, rape, and child abuse are frequently handled very differently from how they would be were the victims American or European. It is very common to see pictures of starving children or rape victims in the pages of Western newspapers. The most egregious example was Kristof’s 2010 identification of a 9-year-old Congolese girl who had been gang-raped. The New York Times printed the girl’s real name along with a facial photograph and even a video of her online. After a firestorm of controversy, Kristof blogged a response in which he promised not to do it again, but disagreed with critics who accused him of putting the child in danger by identifying her. He acknowledged, however, that printing her name violatedTimes policy, even though he obtained permission from a woman acting as her guardian.

It is hard to imagine a situation in which any editor would have let such a “slip” occur had the story been about a Western child-rape victim. Such a story never would — or should — have made it to the publication stage without changing the name to an alias, removing the photograph, or replacing it with a non-identifiable shot and noting that the Times does not print rape victims’ names as a matter of policy.

It is precisely these kinds of double standards that infuriate Africa-watchers and those who care about the ethics of reporting on victims of violence. Yet such abuses are too often tolerated in the Western media when it comes to Africa. Is it because Africa is still in many Western minds the exotic “other” of movies and imagination? Or perhaps because many Western reporters still approach Africa with a mixed sense of excitement at being somewhere so “unique” and fear of the Heart of Darkness? Or is it simple ignorance about an Africa that, as Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina notes, is never going to look like what the West wants it to look like? I don’t have a definitive answer. But I do think we can do better.”

Insightfully said, Laura Seay.

newspapers

March 31, 2016

http://blog.apimages.com/2016/03/31/march-31-2016/

 

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Nigeria: Do You Know How Great Nigeria Is? – allAfrica.com

Thoughts?…

Source: Nigeria: Do You Know How Great Nigeria Is? – allAfrica.com

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Why Bad Leaders Are Inherited, And What We can Do About It

This is an excellent post by a friend that touches upon the lack of women in leadership as a whole, whether it be in the U.S. or Nigeria. I would add that because men have historically held positions of political power, they enjoy the “incumbent advantage,” which is well studied in the U.S. Those (male) politicans currently in office enjoy a more expansive socio-professional network, a potential ability to time elections in their favor, and greater name recognition (regardless of performance). Additionally, incumbents also have easier access to campaign funds and state resources that can be used to bolster their own campaigns, if even indirectly. These dynamics would make for an uphill battle in changing the gender ratios of government seats.

incumbency

How would the incumbent advantage take form in African politics?

ChewyChunks

Sociologists and economists try to explain why the people choose such poor leaders. They argue it’s due to the appeal of the narcissist, or because we’re really not self-aware, or because leaders have always been men and men are just deficient at important leadership qualities. While these all contribute, I think evolution offers the most intriguing insights.

First, let me give these other views a fair hearing.

Groups do tend to choose people who rate high on the narcissist scale, in part because those people are the most aggressive self-promoters, and contend that they are the most qualified of all, a prediction that more competent leaders would be unable to refute. Narcissists to seek leadership positions because they are obsessed with having power. Yet in a variety of studies, narcissistic leaders do no better or worse than any one else as leaders. That helps explain our…

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Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Energy in Africa

It’s home to millions of people who lack even one lamp, but also a frontier of great change and innovation. How much do you know about sub-Saharan Africa’s energy potential?

Source: Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Energy in Africa

Article: Is Africa Leading the Innovation Revolution?

DIMITRI OTIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Necessity is the mother of invention, and in Africa it has been the mother of innovation. While the continent is vastly different, the level of innovation has been interesting to watch, largely fuelled by the equalizing nature of technology and mobile telephony.

Over the last 15 years, African economies have enjoyed growth above the global average. This has largely been fuelled by mineral agriculture, with growth linked to China’s demand for raw materials. While this demand from China is now slowing down, the rise of African countries is a new story.

It is estimated that in 2016, the African population will reach 1,069 billion people, the majority of whom are under 30. Africa has the highest rates of urbanisation; its poor infrastructure, which has previously hampered growth and development, is now a catalyst for innovation. The mobile phone in Africa has become a game-changer for the continent. According to Ericsson, the technology company, by 2019 there will be 930 million mobile phones in Africa, almost one for every person on the continent. There is greater mobile penetration than electricity penetration. Now, people are able to connect, get news, trade, get access to healthcare and even transfer money.

View a larger version of this graphic here.2016-01-19-1453222535-6936826-africaguardian_small.png In Africa, mobile phone penetration is higher than electricity penetration. Graphic by Jon Gosier of Appfrica Labs Public Domain, The Guardian, 2009.One of the biggest innovations to come out of Africa is mobile money transfer, which has disrupted traditional financial models. The technology behind it has now been exported to the West. The continent is starting to see the rise of e-healthcare solutions and online education solutions, two of the biggest challenges on the continent.

For the first time, we are seeing a trend of being technology generators rather than just adopters, and we are seeing more innovators from the west move to the continent due to an easier, and in some cases non-existent, regulatory environment, which enables greater experimentation in the market with few competitors. These include new drone technology for the delivery of goods to leapfrog the infrastructure divide.

Overall, there seems to be good news for the continent, as Africa looks to technology to catalyse new areas of growth, a good example being East Africa, with Rwanda and Kenya in particular championing the need for an enabling environment.

“We need to ensure women are part of this revolution”

However, as the technology and innovation boom hits Africa, there is still a gender divide, and we need to ensure that women and girls are part of this revolution. It’s a prime opportunity to use technology as a catalyst to create inclusive economies, and income inequality. There is a need to create gender-inclusive technology and have women become part of the design and development of technological solutions. There are many programs on the continent leading this charge, and there is an opportunity for Africa to become a leader in gender equality in the technology sector.

The other challenge for Africa is to preserve its ecosystems, which have been under threat due to rapid urbanisation and economic development at the expense of the environment. The latest WWF African Ecological Futures Report makes it clear that we are at a pivotal moment in our development trajectory to balance growth with conservation.

It is an exciting time for the continent. Under the Africa rising narrative, in the coming years we will witness how technology can transform the way Africa works and revolutionising the continent.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum’s Annual Meeting 2016 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 20-23) and in recognition of the Forum’s Global Shapers initiative. The Global Shapers Community is a worldwide network of city-based hubs developed and led by young entrepreneurs, activists, academics, innovators, disruptors and thought leaders. Aged between 20 and 30, they are exceptional in their achievements and drive to make a positive contribution to their communities. Follow the Global Shapers on Twitter at @globalshapers or nominate a Global Shaper at http://www.globalshapers.org/apply. Read all the posts in the series here.

Africa Oil & Gas: Mozambique and South Africa linked by new pipeline

Source: Africa Oil & Gas: Mozambique and South Africa linked by new pipeline

Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Oil Spills — National Geographic

See how much you don’t know about oil spills and oil spill technology with this quiz from National Geographic.

Source: Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Oil Spills — National Geographic