The energy giant Shell is being sued at the British High Court by more than 13,000 people from Nigeria over repeated oil spills that have devastated the health and ecology of local communities in the south of the country.
Residents from the Ogale and Bille communities in the Niger Delta, who have been engaged in litigation against Shell for seven years, are seeking compensation for loss of livelihoods and damages from the UK-based company and its Nigerian subsidiary, SDPC.
It comes as Shell announced that it had more than doubled its annual profit to a record £32.2bn – one of the highest figures ever posted by a British company.
In the last decade, there have been thousands of oil spills in the Niger Delta, which are attributed to faulty or poorly-maintained piping and crude oil theft, carried out by local bandits.
Shell, which first discovered oil in the Delta in 1956, has publicly reported 1,010 leaks since 2011, amounting to 17.5m litres of spilled oil. It has also conceded that it is legally obliged to clean up spills linked to its infrastructure, “regardless of the cause”.
In February 2021, the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there was “a good arguable case” that Shell was legally responsible for systemic pollution caused by its subsidiary SPDC.
Now, the case is proceeding to trial to determine if Shell, as well as SPDC, is legally responsible for the harm caused to the Ogale and Bille communities as a result of oil spills in in the Niger Delta.
Crude oil is flowing from the kitchen taps of local residents, while farmlands and lakes remain coated in black oil – despite promises made by Shell and Nigerian authorities to oversee a thorough clean-up of the region, known as Ogoniland.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) first recommended an extensive clean-up in 2011, after a three-year study demonstrated how the Ogoni people were exposed to severe oil contamination on a daily basis, impacting their water sources, air quality, and farmland.
UNEP concluded there was “an immediate danger to public health”. However, 12 years on, the Ogale and Bille communities, along with many others in the region, remain polluted and residents are still drinking from poisoned wells.
One UN source told the Telegraph that there is a “significant under-estimation of the health impacts [in Ogoniland] from decades of exposure” to oil spills.
“This is in part Shell’s responsibility, but also, those engaged in the illegal bunkering activities which now account for the majority of spills in the Delta,” he said.
Bunkering involves the siphoning of oil from pipelines often belonging to foreign companies. It is then transported to makeshift refineries hidden in bushes and forests several miles away.
Farming and fishing threat
Proposals were recently made by the World Health Organization and UN to conduct a comprehensive study of the health impacts of oil exposure in Ogoniland and better understand how local communities have been affected.
However, local Nigerian authorities voted against the research, the UN source said, instead preferring to commission a smaller “study which will lack international credibility and neutrality”.
He added: “I think the bottom line is they were scared of what it might reveal …The UN are very aware of the potential health consequences [of the oil spills].”
Shell has already accepted full liability for two massive oil spills, which occurred in 2008, that devastated the Bodo communities in Ogoniland.
SPDC was also held liable for oil spills in the Goi and Oruma communities of the delta region and ordered to pay damages to four farmers in a January 2021 ruling by the Court of Appeal of the Hague. The subsidiary was told to carry out an intensive clean-up of the damage to the communities.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil-producing country, with more than 36 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. Each day, about 1.5 million barrels of oil are pumped from the ground in the country’s southern delta region.
Many local residents rely on farming and fishing as their sole source of food and income, but repeated oil spills, stretching back decades, have ruined the water and the land.
As part of the case being fought at the UK High Court, Shell has filed a legal defence in which they claim that the Ogale and Bille communities cannot force the company to carry out a clean-up. Only the Nigerian authorities have the right to do so, Shell says.
It comes as Shell moves to leave the Niger Delta and sell its onshore oil fields and assets after 80 years of profitable operations.
Daniel Leader, partner at the law firm Leigh Day, which is representing the Ogale and Bille communities in court, said the case raises important questions about the responsibilities of oil and gas companies.
“It appears that Shell is seeking to leave the Niger Delta free of any legal obligation to address the environmental devastation caused by oil spills from its infrastructure over many decades.
“At a time when the world is focused on ‘the just transition,’ this raises profound questions about the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for legacy and ongoing environmental pollution.”
A spokesperson for Shell said: “We strongly believe in the merits of our case. The overwhelming majority of spills related to the Bille and Ogale claims were caused by illegal third-party interference, including pipeline sabotage, illegal bunkering and other forms of oil theft. Illegal refining of stolen crude oil also happens on a large scale in these areas and is a major source of oil pollution.
“Such criminal acts remain the main sources of pollution across the Niger Delta today.
“Irrespective of cause, SPDC has and will continue to clean up and remediate areas affected by spills from its facilities or pipeline network.
“We believe litigation does little to address the real problem in the Niger Delta: oil spills due to crude oil theft, illegal refining and sabotage, with which SPDC is constantly faced and which cause the most environmental damage. SPDC works closely with the regulators, local communities, and other stakeholders to address this challenging issue for the benefit of all.”
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