Similar missions in the past have failed to slow thefts valued at more than $20 million a day on the world market. Shell Nigeria, the biggest operator in the West African nation, said it lost $1 billion to oil thefts in 2013.
On Sunday, Shell confirmed that an under-sea pipeline leak has forced the closure of its Forcados export terminal, a major installation with capacity to handle 400,000 barrels of crude a day. Spokesman Precious Okolobo said the terminal was closed March 4 and the cause of the leak still is being investigated.
On Friday night, the commanding officer of the NNS Delta, Capt. Musa Gemu, said sailors destroyed about 260 refineries in the Warri area of the southern Niger Delta. He said they also arrested five suspects.
A former militant in the area, Cross Ebikpade, said such attacks have little effect as the primitive operations use materials like oil drums that are easily available locally. "You can burn the site today but by next week the operators are back in business," he said.
Niger Delta residents have told The Associated Press that they feel entitled to steal oil because they have received little reparation for decades of oil spills and gas flaring that have corrupted their environment, killing fishing and agricultural fields.
Director Patrick Dele Cole of Stop The Theft, an advocacy group, estimates thefts at 250,000 barrels a day - more than a tenth of the country's daily production of 2.2 million barrels. He has told the AP that the thefts will not end until authorities address the fact that profits benefit the same generals and politicians who are ordering the raids on small illegal refineries.
Another non-government group, the Stakeholders Democracy Network, published a report in October alleging a small group of senior military officials charged with halting the thefts actually have shares in syndicates that are stealing crude. Lower-ranking officers demand large bribes to allow boats carrying stolen crude to leave the country, the network said.
Dele Cole said, "The whole idea of selling oil illegally was sponsored and maintained by our political leaders" to fund election campaigns.
With Nigeria gearing up for hotly contested elections in February 2015, it's unlikely there will be any political will to halt the thefts soon.
Corruption at the highest levels is endemic in Nigeria. The oil thefts are unrelated to some 20 billion petrodollars allegedly missing from the country's treasury, from oil sold between January 2012 and July 2013. President Goodluck Jonathan has announced an international forensic audit to unravel the accounts.