Shell Wriggles Free Of Oil Spill Liability In Nigeria, But Case Is Far From Closed

Read time: 4 mins

A Dutch court acquitted oil giant Shell of allegations regarding oil contamination in Nigeria. Reported earlier in The Guardian, the court ruled in favor of the company for 4 counts of polluting land and waterways in the African country, but was held accountable on a fifth count.

The suit was put forward by Friends of the Earth alongside four Nigerian farmers in the areas of Goi, Ogoniland, Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom. They claimed oil pollution from leaky, unsafe oil pipelines devastated livelihoods of local citizens and farmers in the area. Elder Friday Akpan had 47 catfish farms destroyed from previous oil spills:

“The fishes died completely. I was confused because it left me completely empty,” Akpan added. “I did not have some money to pay school fees for my twelve children, and nothing to allow me to earn my livelihood again. Debts I had borrowed I could not repay. There was nothing for me. I was finished.”

The plaintiffs pushed for a hearing in the Netherlands over Nigeria. They hoped it would be strategically more advantageous to hold trial in the country of the company's headquarters versus taking there chances in a Nigerian court where often times the oil companies have more power than the government. Additionally, the Netherlands would more likely properly enforce any damages awarded by the court.

“Shell is a very stubborn company, and in Nigeria, in some situations, it is more powerful than the Nigerian government,” said Prince Chima Williams, head the legal affairs department at the Environmental Rights Action group.

Shell maintains that the oil spills in Nigeria were largely caused by oil thieves running illegal refineries. Their argument states that the pipes leaked due to sabotage from individuals selling in the black-market. Mutiu Sunmonu, managing director of the Shell Petroleum Development Company, explained:

“We welcome the court's ruling that all spill cases were caused by criminal activity. Oil pollution is a problem in Nigeria, affecting the daily lives of people in the Niger Delta. However, the vast majority of oil pollution is caused by oil thieves and illegal refiners. This causes major environmental and economic damage, and is the real tragedy of the Niger Delta.”

It's no secret that Shell has a history of contaminating waterways and refusing to clean up. Oil spills in the past still linger in the drinking water in many areas today, leaving communities with no clean water and no jobs. It's a common practice for companies to specifically move operations overseas where they can duck and hide from environmental and public health regulations. This leaves oil pipes neglected and without updated safety measures that are often employed in other countries.

In the Niger Delta, many locals have turned to rebel groups, as seen in the documentary Delta Boys, because there is no opportunity for work to earn a legitimate living. The companies reap all of the profits and leave the communities vulnerable.

But even amongst the loss, there is still celebration. The one count in which Shell will be held accountable to compensate the victims is a precedent-setting decision. Friends of the Earth Netherlands held a positive outlook on the verdict:

“This verdict is great news for the people in lkot Ada Udo who started this case together with Milieudefensie [Friends of the Earth Netherlands]. But the verdict also offers hope to other victims of environmental pollution caused by multinationals. At the same time, the verdict is a bitter disappointment for the people in the villages of Oruma and Goi – where the court did not rule to hold Shell liable for the damage. Fortunately, this can still change in an appeal.”

And while there was disappointment, there was also excitement amongst those fighting for justice.

“There is an atmosphere of celebration here – the community feels that some justice has been done,” said Ken Henshaw, a Niger Delta activist from campaign group Social Action which has closely followed the case. “A precedent has been set, it has been made known that shell can be liable for damages and loss of livelihood.”

Damages and compensation have yet to be determined.

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