Almost 14 000 Nigerians take Shell to court over impact of pollution

Shell is not keen to reopen the Trans Forcadas Pipeline in Nigeria, blown up twice in the past year. File picture: Reuters

Shell is not keen to reopen the Trans Forcadas Pipeline in Nigeria, blown up twice in the past year. File picture: Reuters

Published Feb 17, 2023


Durban - Nearly 14 000 Nigerians, hailing from two different communities have taken Dutch oil giant Shell to court seeking justice amid claims of devastating pollution of water sources and the destruction of their way of life.

According to a report by the Guardian, the group from the Niger delta area of Ogale, a farming community, lodged their claims in a London High Court last week, joining more than 2 000 people from the Bille area, a largely fishing community.

In total 13 652 claims from individuals, churches and schools are asking the oil giant to clean up the pollution which they say has devastated their communities. They are also asking for compensation for the resulting loss of their livelihoods.

Their ability to farm and fish has been destroyed by the continuing oil spills from Shell operations, they claim. Shell argues that the communities have no legal standing to force it to clean up. Surprise surprise. Shell also said that the individuals are barred from seeking compensation for spills which happened five years before they lodged their claims.

The company says it bears no responsibility for the clandestine syphoning off of oil from its pipelines by organised gangs, which it says causes many of the spills. Fair enough. The case against Shell is taking place as the oil conglomerate prepares to leave the Niger delta after more than eight decades of operations which have reaped substantial profits. The company made $30 billion in profits last year alone.

Daniel Leader, a partner at Leigh Day, who is representing the claimants told the Guardian that 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,” Leader said.

Lawyers argue that the scale of oil spills in the delta masks a human tragedy on an extraordinary scale, with the pollution ingested by local people causing serious health impacts and affecting mortality rates.

The Guardian cited a report conducted by the University of St Gallen in Switzerland which found that infants in the Niger delta were twice as likely to die in their first month of life if their mothers lived near an oil spill, a study which suggested there were 11 000 premature deaths a year in the Niger delta.

Shell has argued for five years that it is not liable for the actions of its Nigerian subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) and the claims from the people of Ogale and Bille could not be heard in a London courtroom.

But the Supreme Court ruled last year “there is a good arguable case” that Nigerian communities could bring their claims to the high court. Shell continues to argue in its defence that it is not liable as the parent company. Shell told the Guardian that it “had done clean-up work and remediation of affected areas, and was working with the relevant Nigerian authorities to prevent sabotage, crude oil theft, and illegal refining which were, it said, the main source of pollution. It argued that litigation would do little to help address this issue.”

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