When BP and its drilling partners caused the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the United States government demanded that BP finance the clean-up, compensate those who suffered damages, and pay criminal penalties for the violations that led to the disaster. BP has already committed more than US$20 billion (Dh73.5bn) in remediation and penalties. Based on a settlement last week, BP will now pay the largest criminal penalty in US history - $4.5bn.
The same standards for environmental clean-up need to be applied to global companies operating in poorer countries, where their power has typically been so great relative to that of governments that many act with impunity, wreaking havoc on the environment with little or no accountability. As we enter a new era of sustainable development, impunity must turn to responsibility. Polluters must pay, whether in rich or poor countries.
Nigeria has been exhibit A of corporate environmental impunity. For decades, major oil companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron have been producing oil in the Niger Delta, an ecologically fragile environment of freshwater swamp forests, mangroves, lowland rainforests and coastal barrier islands. This rich habitat supports remarkable biodiversity - or did before the oil companies got there - and more than 30 million local inhabitants.
Twenty years ago, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classified the Niger Delta as a region of high biodiversity of marine and coastal flora and fauna and therefore rated it as a high priority for conservation. Yet it also noted that the region's biodiversity was under threat, with little or no protection.
The global companies operating in the delta have spilt oil and flared natural gas for decades, without regard for the environment and the communities impoverished and poisoned by their actions.
There have been many thousands of spills during this period - often poorly documented and their magnitude hidden. Indeed, just as BP was being hit with new criminal penalties, ExxonMobil announced a pipeline leak in the Niger Delta.
The environmental destruction of the delta is part of a larger saga: corrupt companies operating hand in hand with corrupt government officials.
The companies routinely bribe officials to gain oil leases, lie about output, evade taxes, and dodge responsibility for the environmental damage that they cause. Nigerian officials have become fabulously wealthy, owing to decades of payoffs by international companies that have plundered the delta's natural wealth.
Meanwhile, the local population has remained impoverished and beset by diseases caused by unsafe air, poisoned drinking water and food chain pollution.
In the colonial era, it was the official purpose of imperial power to extract wealth from the administered territories. In the post-colonial period, the methods are better disguised. When oil companies misbehave in Nigeria or elsewhere, they are protected by the power of their home countries. Indeed, one of the largest bribes (a reputed $180 million) paid in recent times in Nigeria was by Halliburton, a company tightly intertwined with US political power.
Last year, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) issued a remarkable report on Ogoniland, a major ethnic homeland in the Niger Delta at the epicentre of conflict between local communities and international oil. The report was as scathing as it was scientifically clear. Despite many past promises of a clean-up, Ogoniland remains in environmental agony.
UNEP also offered clear and detailed recommendations, including emergency measures to ensure safe drinking water; clean-up activities targeting the mangroves and soils; public-health studies to identify and counteract the consequences of pollution; and a new regulatory framework.
Many major companies, including in the oil industry, have expressed their readiness to support sustainable development goals. Cleaning up the Niger Delta would provide the strongest possible example of a new age of accountability.
Jeffrey Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York and special adviser to the United Nations secretary general on the millennium development goals
* Project Syndicate