Reporters on the Job

'Bonny sweet': Stories about oil producers often take reporters to dry deserts. Not so for Abraham McLaughlin, who flew in a helicopter over the lush mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta.

During the flight, the pilot grabbed Abe's attention, saying: "Look, there's one." He pointed to a long barge partly hidden in the mangroves. It belongs to pirates who regularly tap into oil lines to siphon off some black gold to sell to illegal oil brokers.

"It was easy to spot from the air, but, the pilot explained, very hard for police boats to find in the maze of waterways," Abe says. "During our 20-minute flight we saw perhaps a dozen of these barges. It's hard to stop all of them."

Abe flew on to the Bonny Island oil-export terminal, a major export terminal for Nigerian oil. "With 20 or so giant, round oil tanks, and just a chain-link fence for security, it struck me that this place was vulnerable to attack," he says.

While at Bonny, Abe saw up close some actual "Bonny Sweet Crude" as it's called on world markets.

"It indeed smelled sweet and was the color and consistency of very-watery maple syrup," he says. "The technician explained that Nigeria's oil is so pure that you can actually put it straight into your gas tank. Eventually it might clog your engine, but for a while it would work just fine. It makes refining the stuff easy and cheap.

"Seeing the pirates, the terminal, and the oil reinforced how vulnerable - and valuable - Nigeria's oil supply really is," Abe says.

Ben Arnoldy
Asia editor

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